Winds of Fury
By: Mercedes Lackey
Ancar, King of Hardorn, slumped in the cushioned embrace of his throne and stared out into the empty Great Hall. Empty, because he no longer bothered with holding audiences. He was not here to listen to the complaints of the people of Hardorn. When he wished them to learn of his will, there were better ways to inform them than to gather them together like a mass of milling sheep and declaim it to them.
He did not serve them, as one petty bureaucrat of his father's reign had whined that he must - just before he had ordered the man given to his mages. They served him; his pleasures, his will, his whims. That was what his mother had taught him before she died, and Hulda had simply confirmed those lessons. Now, after all these years, they were finally learning that. He was their ruler by right of arms and strength; he had the power of life and death over them, and all that lay in between.
It had certainly taken them long enough to realize that.
The servants had lit the candles ensconced along the birch-paneled walls, and the dancing flames reflected from the polished gray-granite floor and the varnished maple beams above. Wavering spots of flame twinkled at him from gilt trim and gold fittings, from crystal ornaments and the metal threads of battle flags hanging from the beams. This had been a court of weaklings, once. His few decent enemies had been subdued or annihilated, and their families and lands with them. Now all that remained of them were the flags of their conquered holdings, and a few trophies Ancar kept to remind others of his grasp.
Echoes of his movements came back to him like a whisper. He found a peculiar irony in this empty chamber; a poignancy, yes. He found all of his pensive thoughts poignant. He had run out of challenges. This hall was as empty as his own conquests.
Oh, of course, he had all of Hardorn trembling at his feet - but he could not extend the borders of his Kingdom more than few shabby leagues in any direction. Even he dared not look Eastward, of course; to the East was the Empire, and the two-hundred-year-old Emperor Charliss. Only a fool would challenge Charliss - or someone who was stronger than Charliss. Ancar knew better than to think that he could boast of that.
To the North was Iftel, and he frowned to think of how his single attempt to invade that land had ended: with his armies transported bodily back to the capital and deposited there, and not a memory of crossing the border among them - and with his mages vanished utterly, without a trace. There was an invisible wall stretching along the Iftel-Hardorn border, a wall that would allow no one to pass. No, whatever guarded Iftel was as powerful as the Emperor, and there was no point in making It angry.
To the South was Karse. Ruled by priests, at war with Valdemar for hundreds of years - he would have said that Karse was a plum ripe for his picking. Except that he had been unable to gain more than those few leagues; after that, it seemed as if the very land itself rose up against him, and the Sun-priests certainly called up demons against his armies, for scores of men would vanish every night, never to be seen again. And it had become worse since the Priesthood had been taken over by a woman; he had lost even those few leagues he had gained.
But he could have coped with the losses in Karse. It was all hill country, rocky and infertile, of little use. He could have even coped with the humiliation of Iftel. If it hadn't been for Valdemar.
If he lowered his eyes, he would see the map of Hardorn inlaid in the granite of the floor just in front of the throne. The Empire in black terrazzo, Iftel in green marble, Karse in yellow marble, and Valdemar in its everlasting white. Valdemar would be at his left hand; the hand of sorcery, or so the old-wives' tales had it. Valdemar, the unconquered. Valdemar, that should have been first to fall.
Valdemar, the ripe fruit that Hulda had promised him from the beginning.
He felt his lips lifting in a snarl and forced his face back into his mask of calm. And if the truth were to be admitted, he could not have told whether the snarl was meant for Valdemar and her Bitch-Queen, or for Hulda, the Bitch-Adept.
He shifted uncomfortably and the echo whispered back at him, a phantom rustling of fabric. Hulda had promised him Valdemar from the time she began to teach him black sorcery, had promised him the pretty little princess Elspeth, had vowed that he would have both within moments of seizing the throne of Hardorn from his senile old father. He liked tender little girls; at sixteen, Elspeth had been a little riper than he preferred but was still young enough to make a good plaything. At a single stroke, he would have doubled the size of his kingdom, and created a platform from which to invade not only Karse but Rethwellan as well. Then, with both these lands firmly in his fist, he could have challenged the old Emperor or simply consolidated his power, making himself Emperor of the West as Charliss was of the East. Hulda had promised him that. She had sworn she was the most powerful Adept in seven kingdoms! She had pledged him her help and her teaching; she had certainly not been backward in teaching him the secrets of her body! He had had no reason to doubt her at the time -
Except that it had never happened. Somehow the damned Heralds sent to negotiate a marriage with Elspeth got word to their Queen of his plans and the death of his father. Somehow one of them even escaped Ancar's prison cell, warned the Queen, and stopped him and his hastily-gathered army.
But it got worse with his second attempt. Somehow the Queen managed to raise a mercenary army that was capable of defeating his mages as well as his troops. Somehow they had cobbled up an alliance with the fanatics of Karse.
Somehow all of this had happened without Hulda, "the most powerful Adept in seven kingdoms," ever becoming aware of what was going on until after the fact. Bitch-Queen Selenay was still firmly on her throne. Another bitch, a mercenary Captain named Kerowyn, now held the border against him, and there didn't seem to be a single trick any of his commanders or mages could work that she hadn't seen before - and countered before. The Herald-Bitch Talia had been made a Sun-priest herself, and vested with the authority of the Arm of Vkandis by yet another bitch, the High Priest Solaris. And Bitch-Princess Elspeth had simply vanished, on some other quest for help, and he had to assume, given the absence of panic, that she was succeeding, even though not one of his agents could locate her.
And Bitch-Adept Hulda sat and twiddled her thumbs.
He was beginning to grow very tired of women. He had already grown tired of Hulda.
He was not aware of the fact that he had spoken her name until the echoes sent it back to him. This time he did snarl.
Yes, he was growing very tired of Hulda. He was tired of her whims, her eccentricities, her pretenses. What had been charming and exciting when he was sixteen now bored him - when it didn't disgust him. She was too old to play the coquette, too old for girlish mannerisms. And when she cast them off, she acted as if she was the monarch here, and not he.
That galled him almost as much as her consistent failure, and he would have tolerated the former if she had not brought him the latter. But she had the attitude without producing results, and if she weren't an Adept, he'd have had her slow-roasted alive by now.
When he was younger, he had accepted the fact that she virtually ruled him without a thought. But then, he had accepted many things back then without a thought. He was older now.
She treated him exactly as she had when he had taken the throne. She spoke, and expected him to listen attentively; she issued orders, and expected him to fling himself into whatever she ordered him to do.
I could have tolerated all of this if she had only done what she had promised. Out-thinking her was a challenge then....
She had pledged him before he took the throne that he would soon be an Adept to rival her; she swore he would have power beyond his wildest dreams, power enough to level mountains if he chose. She swore that she would teach him everything she knew.
But the power never materialized, and the training she gave him never went beyond the level of Master. She had never taught him how to use all the powers he could Sense, and all the training she had given him until that moment had made it impossible for him to touch them. Or at least he had not been able to touch them during the time that she had been his only teacher.
He had encountered this reluctance on Hulda's part to give him any more real teaching two years ago, shortly after he had turned Master. He had been certain at that moment that the powers of an Adept were almost in his grasp, that it would only be a matter of a little more training.
That was when the excuses began. Hulda suspended his regular training sessions, telling him that he was beyond such things. That had made him elated, briefly - until he realized that there was no way other than regular training to achieve his long-sought goal. And when he began to seek her out, asking for more teaching, she was always busy....
And at first, her excuses had seemed plausible. After so many defeats from the west, they were taking no chances. Hulda had mustered a cadre of mages of relatively low power to watch the border for any weaknesses in the force that protected Valdemar from magic. She needed to organize these people, to make certain that the coercion spells upon them were powerful enough to keep them at their work no matter what temptations and opportunities to defect were placed before them. But after weeks of such excuses, they began to wear thin.
After a few months, he took matters into his own hands.
He had been collecting mages since his first, ill-fated attempt to take the Valdemaran throne. Now he began doing more than collecting them and placing them under his coercion spells; now he began finding out, in a systematic sweep through his mage-corps, just what they knew.
He had been collecting and recruiting every kind and type of mage that showed even the faintest traces of power - from hill-shaman to mages of no known School. By aggressively pursuing a course of forced-learning, he had picked up every bit of knowledge, however seemingly inconsequential, from any of his "recruits" that had teachings he had not gotten. He had also been collecting every scrap of written information about magic that he could lay his hands on; every grimoire, every mage's personal notebook, every history of ancient times, and anything concerning magic to be had from within the Empire. Much of it had been useful. Some of it, he was certain, Hulda herself did not share. But none of it brought him the prize he was trying to reach -
At least, not to his knowledge. As he understood it, only an Adept could use the power of "nodes," those meeting places of the lines of power that he could use. Every attempt he had made so far had resulted in failure. He was still not an Adept, and he had no idea how far he was from that goal.
He had been trying to find an Adept to teach him, with no luck. Of course, Adepts could be avoiding Hardorn; everything he had ever heard or read indicated that the kind of Adept willing to teach him would also be the kind unwilling to share power, and that was precisely the problem he had with Hulda. Hulda might be warning them off, somehow. It would not surprise him much to discover that she had been working against him, preventing him from locating an Adept so that he would always be her inferior.
But she had underestimated him, and his willingness to tolerate a position as ruler in name only. There could be only one Ruler of Hardorn, and it would not be Hulda.
A servant appeared at the door, waiting silently for him to notice her existence. He admired the woman for a moment - not for her own looks, but for the new livery he had ordered. Scarlet and gold: the scarlet of blood, the gold of the wealth he intended to grasp. The livery matched his new device, now blazoned above his throne, replacing the insipid oak tree of his father. A winged serpent in gold, upon a field of blood-red, poised to strike.
Hulda should have taken note of that new device, and thought about what it meant.
Hulda thought that she had him under control, but she had not counted on the more mundane methods of dealing with an enemy. He had placed spies among her servants, loyal only to him, their loyalty ensured not by spells, but by fear. He had chosen these people carefully, finding those for whom death would be preferable to losing someone - or something. For some, it was a family member or a lover that they would die to protect. For others, it was a secret. And for a few, it was a possession that made life worth living. Such passion meant control - and such control could not be revealed by magical means.
These servants followed Hulda's every move, and let him know when she was so deeply engrossed in some activity that he would be able to act without her guessing what he was up to. She was not infallible - for instance, she did not possess a spell that he had read about, one that permitted the caster to see into the past. Whatever he did while she was occupied, she would not know about. She also did not possess the mind-magic that enabled one to read the thoughts of others. Well, neither did he, but that was of little matter at the moment. What was important was that she could not detect his control of her servants from their thoughts. So as long as she did not torture their secrets from them, he would always know where she was and what she was doing.
She might have servants of the same sort watching him; in fact, he had planned on it. His propensity for taking young, barely post-pubescent girls was well known - as was their regrettable tendency to not survive such encounters. He still enjoyed such pleasures, but as often as not, the girl was incidental to something magical he wished to achieve. There was great power in a painful death - something about a life being ended prematurely released incredible power. He did not think Hulda knew that he knew this; after all, his preferences had been well established long before he learned of the power these acts released. So he would wait until Hulda was occupied, then select one of the little lambs in his private herd and repair to his own chambers for an enjoyable and profitable candlemark or two.
His hand-picked servants watched Hulda, and guarded his secrets against her.
The woman waiting for him to acknowledge her, for instance, was Hulda's personal maid, and privy to her comings and goings. She was common enough to attract no notice; middle-aged, neither plain nor pretty, neither fat nor thin. And well-trained; she would not have slipped away, she would have waited for Hulda to dismiss her - and yet, at the same time, she would have arranged to be so attentive that Hulda would not dismiss her unless the mage wanted privacy. What a shame she wasn't younger.
He raised his eyes and nodded. The servant crossed the floor silently, her eyes lowered, and prostrated herself at the foot of the throne.
"Speak," he said quietly.
"Hulda has retired to her chamber in the company of the muleteer I told you of, Majesty," the servant replied, in a voice carefully pitched so as not to carry beyond the immediate vicinity. He had not chosen this chamber as a place to sit and brood without thought; it was impossible to be spied upon effectively here, and impossible to be overheard, given the acoustics of the place. It had been built to enable a semi-private audience in the midst of a crowded court. Such clever design gave him true privacy without making it obvious.
He raised his eyebrows in sardonic surprise; the muleteer must be a remarkable man, for this would be the fourth time he had graced Hulda's bed. Then again, Ancar had heard that the man had the strength and stamina of one of his mules...and perhaps shared more with them than Ancar had guessed.
The King had no fear that this muleteer might be an agent of Hulda's own; he knew everything there was to know about the man. Gossip in the kitchens had first alerted him to the muleteer's unusual abilities, although none of his excellence was in the area of intelligence. Hulda's muleteer was as dense as a rock and possessed of very little wit, only one short step above absolute simpleton. And Ancar had, in fact, arranged for his erstwhile tutor to hear about the muleteer's physical attributes. It had been no surprise to him when she immediately found an excuse to go down to the secondary stables to see the man for herself. As he had expected, once Hulda had ascertained that there was no hook attached to this very attractive bait, she had taken it.
Yes, well. The "hook" is the man himself, and his ability to keep a woman occupied and heedless of anything else for several candlemarks at a time. Not something Hulda would be looking for.
So, once again, Hulda and her new toy were amusing themselves. He wondered how long this toy would last. She tended to be as hard on her playthings as he was on his.
"Very good," he said in reply. "You may go."
The servant got slowly to her feet and backed out, closing the door behind her. Ancar did not immediately rise from his throne; he would wait, and give Hulda the opportunity to become completely engrossed in her lover before he moved.
No, there could be only one ruler in Hardorn. He was going to find a way to rid himself of Hulda, sooner or later.
That was, in a way, something of a pity. She was the only woman above the age of fifteen that he found desirable; perhaps that was because her sexual experience was so vast, and so unique. She constantly found new ways to amuse him. And it would be very pleasurable to somehow reduce her to the level of one of the servants; to strip her of all ability to challenge him, and yet leave her intelligence and her knowledge intact. That would be a triumph greater than conquering Valdemar.
No, I don't think that will ever happen. No matter how powerful I became, there would be no way I could strip her mind bare without fearing she would find a way to release herself. She would never accept any kind of role as an underling. It would be a waste of power I could better spend elsewhere. Once I am an Adept, once I have defeated her, that defeat must be followed by her death.
Finally, when he was certain he had given Hulda enough time to put everything except the prowess of her muleteer out of her mind, he rose and took his slow, leisurely way to his own chambers.
And not to his official chambers either.
"Keep watch," he told one of the guards outside the chamber - another of his hand-picked armsmen, but this one controlled directly, as all his personal guards were, by spells controlling his mind. He turned to the other. "Tell my chamberlain I am not to be disturbed unless there is an emergency."
Then he turned just outside of the double doors of the audience chamber and entered one of the corridors of the sort used by the servants. The guard followed him, walking about three paces behind. This was not a heavily trafficked corridor, either; in fact, it was likely that no one walked it except to keep it clean and keep the lights burning along it. It led to a set of dark stairs, which led downward, directly to one of the oldest parts of this castle; one of the round towers that had once anchored this building against siege. Seldom used now, but he found the round shape of the rooms very useful.
He held the only key to the door on this level; he unlocked it, after first making certain the spells and physical devices meant to insure his privacy were still intact. The wooden door had a copper lock; very useful in that copper retained the traces of any magic that might be used on it. He let himself into the bottom room of the tower and relocked the door behind him.
This room held his collection of peasant girls, gleaned from the countryside by his troopers, all housed in neat little cells built about the exterior wall of the room. They were carefully chosen by his chamberlain and himself; he looked for deep emotional capacity, and his chamberlain looked for a lack of awkward relatives who might miss them. A spell of silence ensured that they could not speak to one another, nor communicate in any other way. Every day he had food and water delivered to them by a servant; each cell had all the facilities of one of the finer guest rooms in the castle itself, even if the space was a bit cramped. No vermin here, and no dirt either. He was quite fastidious about his person, and what he permitted in close proximity to it. Every girl here was under a minor coercion spell, set by one of his tame mages, that forced her to eat, drink, and keep herself neat and bathed.
The aura of terror in this room was quite astounding, and wonderfully sustaining. The spell of silence only made waiting more frightening to his captives.
Hulda assumed that this was the only purpose of the tower; she had never looked beyond this chamber and the one immediately above. She had no notion of what lay in the windowless third-story room, under the round, peaked roof.
He would not be availing himself of the services of any of the girls today. He had already charged himself with as much power as he could handle yesterday, and the little that had leaked off in the interim was insignificant.
He crossed the chamber to the spiral staircase that rose through the middle, taking it up to the room above. He ignored this room as well; he had no use for the couch, the rack, the chest of instruments. Not today. He permitted the room to remain in darkness, lit only from the chamber below, as he crossed to the staircase that curled up the stone wall and rose to the third and final room.
It, too, lay in near total darkness. He lit a lantern at the head of the stairs - without the use of magic. He would need all the power he had for what lay before him; the manuscript he meant to follow today had made that much quite clear.
Once the lantern gave him some light to see by, he made a circuit of the room, lighting every burnished Iantern within it, until it was as bright as possible in a room with no windows.
This wood-floored room was ringed with bookcases, exactly as the ground-floor room was ringed with cells. And here lay the prisoners of his intellectual searches, the captives of his quest for knowledge. Hundreds of books, of book-rolls, of manuscripts; even mere fragments of manuscripts. All of them were handwritten; the kind of knowledge contained in these words was not the kind that anyone would ever commit to a printer. He had been collecting these for more than the two years of his disenchantment with his mentor, but it was only within the past two years that he had begun studying them and trying the spells described in them without supervision.
He fully intended to try another of them today.
He did not know what this spell was supposed to do, but he had some hopes that it might be the long-sought way to tap safely into the power of nodes, the spell that would finally make him an Adept. It was in this very manuscript that he first found the word "node," and realized from the antique description that these knots of energy at the junction of two or more ley-lines were the same energy nexus-points that he had been, thus far, unable to tap himself.
This was one of the incomplete manuscripts, and it was the many pages missing and paragraphs obliterated that had made him hesitate for so long before trying anything contained in it. The real purpose of this spell was in the pages that were missing, and the pages he possessed were riddled by insects and blurred by time. Still, this was the closest he had come in all the months of searching, and for the past week or so, he had felt ready to attempt this "spell of seeking." For some reason, today felt right to try it.
He had managed a week ago to restore some of the manuscript at least; a clear description of the level of Adept that could tap into the "nodes," though not the safeguards that would make such tapping less hazardous. This was the first time he had seen such descriptions, or the directions on how to use the node-power once he obtained it.
Hopefully, if he were strong enough, the safeguards would not be necessary. He had never once seen Hulda using any such safeguards when she accessed the power of "nodes."
Then again, his more cautious side chided, she could have established those protections before you were in a position to watch her. She could have been hiding them from you.
The spell described was not the same one that Hulda used, of that much he was certain. This spell required the construction of some kind of "portal"; he could only assume that it was a portal to the node-power. That made sense; he already knew that he, at least, could not touch these things directly.
He settled into a chair he often used for his meditations and suppressed a shiver. He recalled only too well the first and last time he had attempted to touch the nodes directly.
He had been able to see these power nexus-points, as well as the lines leading to them, from the time he reached the level of Journeyman. From the time he was first initiated by Hulda into the world of magic, he had been able to see the power that all things created, all the colors and intensities of it. But until Hulda drew power from those points during an attempt to pierce the sky above one of the Valdemar border towns with magic and let loose a plague of poisonous "insects" there, he had not known they were useful for anything. That was when she had told him - a little too proudly, he thought - that he would not be able to copy her example until he was an Adept.
He had tested that himself, when he realized that she was never going to assist him to achieve that status.
The power had been wild and startling; he had known immediately that he did not have the ability to control it at all, much less do so safely. It had felt as if he were suddenly juggling red-hot stones, and he had quickly released his tenuous contact, suddenly grateful that it was so tenuous. He had felt "scorched" for days afterward, and he had never again made the attempt.
But this time - perhaps through this "portal" -
The manuscript had been very clear on one point; that the only energy he would be able to use to form this portal was the energy he contained within himself. A pity, but he saw no reason to doubt it; hence the conscientious effort to fully charge himself, as if for a battle. Now he was as ready as he would ever be.
This room was perfect for use as a mage's private workroom; the wooden floor could be inscribed with chalk for diagrams, the peaked roof allowed a great deal of clearance in the center, and the only furniture was the bookcases, two chairs, and one table. There were no windows that needed to be shut or barred, and the stone walls were thick enough that very little sound penetrated. The old tower had been relegated to storage until he took it over, and most of the servants were unaware it was being used for anything else.
The portal required a physical foundation; he used the frame of one of the bookcases, an empty one, since he did not know what would happen to the contents once the portal was complete.
He sat bolt upright in a chair, took a deep, settling breath, and began.
He raised his hands and closed his eyes. He did not need to see the bookcase; what he wanted was not within the level of the visible, anyway. Within the framework of the bookcase he built another framework. Its carefully spun energy intertwined with the grain of the wood. The new framework was composed of energy taken from Ancar's own reserves.
I call upon the Portal -
Those were the words the spell called for; within the structure of those words he built up his frame of power, building it layer upon layer, making it stronger, spinning more and more of himself into it. The words were a mnemonic, a way of keeping track of the anchoring points for the spell; one for each syllable, there, there, and there, seven points. He concentrated on manipulating the energies exactly as the manuscript had described.
Then he reached the place where the manuscript had ended. From this moment on, he would be working blind.
He hoped that at the proper moment the portal would extend to one of the nodes, and enable him to take in the node's wild power without harm. In fact, he thought of that as he built up his portal, hoping that the thought would be echoed in the power, as often happened in higher magery. It was yet another reason why complete control was paramount to an advanced mage; stray thoughts would always affect the final spell.
Steady now; control and command. You rule the power. Shape it to your will, keep it in your hands.
The interior of the bookcase warped away from him and vanished, leaving behind a lightless void. He began to lose strength, as if his life were bleeding away into the void.
No reason to panic. The manuscript said this would happen. I just have to keep it from taking everything.
Then came the unexpected.
The portal's edges pulsed, then extended tendrils in all directions! Lightninglike extrusions of power began spinning out from his carefully-wrought framework, waving aimlessly, as if they were searching for something.
Then, as a thread of fear traversed his spine, they reacted as if they felt that fear, and began groping after him! And he was paralyzed with weakness, unable to move from his chair!
Gods and demons! No!
He couldn't tell what had gone wrong, or even if this was somehow what was supposed to happen -
No, this couldn't be what was "supposed" to happen; if those tentacles touched him, they would suck the rest of the power from him before he could even blink. He could tell by their color, they had to be kept from him. Something had gone wrong - very, very wrong. This was worse than when he had touched the node - for this thing he had created was part of him, and he could no more cut himself off from it than he could cut off an arm. What now?
The life-energy tentacles reached blindly for him, threatening to create a power-loop that would devour him. All he could think of was that an Adept would know what to do if this spell was going wrong. At this point, he would gladly have welcomed any Adept; Hulda, an Eastern mage, even one of the disgustingly pure White Winds
Adepts. Anyone, so long as they knew what this thing was and how to save him from it!
At that moment, the groping tendrils stopped reaching for him. They hovered and flickered, then responded to his panicked thoughts and reached instead into the void, growing thinner and thinner....
What - ?
Suddenly there was no strength to spare even for a thought; his strength poured from him as from a mortal wound, and he collapsed against the back of his chair. His head spun, his senses began to desert him, and it was all he could do to cling to consciousness and fight the thing he had created.
Then, between one heartbeat and the next, there was a terrible surge of energy back into him and through him. Soundless light exploded against his eyelids; he gasped in pain.
That was too much; he blacked out for a moment, all of his senses overloaded, all of his channels struggling to contain the power that had flooded back into him.
Finally, he took a breath. Another. His lungs still worked; he had not been burned to a cinder after all. He blinked, surprised that he could still see.
And as his eyes focused again, he realized that he was no longer alone in his tower room.
There was something - some kind of not-quite-human creature - collapsed at his feet. The portal was gone, and with it, the back and shelves of the empty bookcase.
His first, fleeting thought was that it was a good thing that he had chosen an empty bookcase for his experiment. His second, that whatever it was he had created, it had not been the means to tap into the nodes that he had thought it would be.
His third - that he had somehow brought this creature here. Was that why the manuscript had called the construct a portal? Was it a door to somewhere else, not the nodes? If it was, this creature he had somehow summoned through it was from a place stranger than he had ever seen or heard of. It was unconscious, but breathing. He turned it over, carefully, with his foot.
It? No, indisputably "he," not "it."
Whatever he was, this strange creature, he was in very bad condition; in the deep shock only handling too much mage-energy could produce, the shock that Ancar himself had only narrowly escaped just now. He was manlike, but had many attributes of a huge and powerful cat - a golden pelt, manelike hair, the teeth of a carnivore - and the more Ancar examined him, the more certain he became that those "attributes" had been created. This being had somehow been involved in changing his own shape, something that Ancar could not do, and had only seen Hulda do once. This was a more useful ability than a spell of illusion, which could be detected or broken.
Wait a moment, and think. He might have been born this way, and not something changed by magic. Or he could even be a different race than mankind altogether. This could be the creature's natural shape.
That thought was a trifle disappointing, but if it was true, it still meant that the creature was from so far away that Ancar had never even picked up a hint of anything like it before. It had to be involved in magic to have gotten into that void between the Planes. And together, those two facts meant that it must know many things that were not in the magic traditions that Ancar had been using.
And that meant things entirely outside Hulda's scope of knowledge.
He drew upon the energy of his imprisoned girls below, and gained the strength to rise and examine the creature sprawled across the wooden floor of his tower room.
Carefully, warily, Ancar knelt beside him and touched him, extending his own battered probes to the mind and the potentials within that mind.
Whatever shields the creature had once possessed were gone; all of his remaining energies were devoted to simply staying alive. That left him completely naked to Ancar's probes, and what the King found as he explored the creature's potentials startled him into a smothered shout of glee.
The odd half-beast was an Adept! It was clear for anyone of Master rank to read, in the channels, in the strength of his Gift. And a powerful Adept as well that much was evident from the signs all over him that pointed to constant manipulations of mage-energy on a scale Ancar had only dreamed of.
And with his shields gone, his mind open, he was entirely within Ancar's power. Here it was, exactly what he had been longing for. The power of an Adept was what Ancar wanted; whether it was within himself or in another, it did not matter - as long as it was in his control.
The beast stirred and opened his eyes. Slitted eyes, with rings of gold and green, blinking in a way that could not be counterfeited. The creature was dazed, disoriented, and so weak he could not even manage a coherent thought.
Quickly, before the strange creature could do anything to orient itself, he flung the simplest controlling spell he could think of at it, sending it to sleep. Clumsy with excitement, he lurched to his feet and ran down the two staircases to the room at the base of the tower.
There was no time for finesse, and no time to worry about subtlety. He unlocked the first cell with a touch of his finger, and dragged the shrinking, terrified girl huddled inside out into the light.
She wore a collar and nothing else; a red collar. Good, she was still a virgin.
He snapped a chain onto her collar, and hauled her up the staircase behind him.
Ancar flung the knife aside, to lie beside the lifeless body of the girl he had brought up from below. He had been a little disappointed in the amount of power he had been able to drain from her before she died. He hoped it would be enough.
He raised his hands and held them palm-down over the creature at his feet. The runes of coercion gleamed wetly on his golden pelt, drawn there in blood while the girl's heart was still beating. This, at least, he had done many times.
He recited the spell under his breath, and chuckled in satisfaction as the runes flared up brightly, then vanished, along with the girl's body. He stepped back a pace or two, then settled himself in his chair again, without once taking his eyes off the body of his new acquisition.
Once he was comfortable, he banished the spell that held the creature unconscious, and watched as the golden eyes flickered open again.
This time there was sense in them; sense, and wariness. But no strength; the creature tried to rise and failed, tasted the strength of the coercive spells binding him, but did not even attempt to test them. Ancar had taken a small risk with one of his spells; he had substituted the glyph for "sound" for the one of "sight" in the only translation spell he knew. He hoped it would enable this strange creature to understand him, and be understood in return.
"Who are you?" he asked carefully.
The creature levered itself into a sitting position, but did not seem able to rise any farther. The man-beast stared at him for a long moment, while Ancar wondered if the spell had worked, or if he should repeat the question.
Then he saw the flicker of sly defiance in the eyes.
...or perhaps a little coercive pressure.
He exerted his will, just a trifle, and had the satisfaction of seeing his captive wince. The sensuous mouth opened.
"Falconsbane." The voice was low, and Ancar had the feeling it could be pleasant, even seductive, if the owner chose. "Mornelithe...Falconsbane."
Oh, how pretentious. At least the creature understood him. "Where do you come from?"
A very pink tongue licked the generous lips; Ancar stared in fascination. This Falconsbane had tremendous powers of recovery! He had gone from comatose to speech in a much shorter time than Ancar had expected, even with the magical assistance of the girl's life-force. But the question seemed to confuse the creature.
Well, of course it does, fool! If he does not know where he is, how can he know where he is from?
"Never mind that," Ancar amended. "What are you? Is that your natural form?"
"I am...changed," Falconsbane said slowly. "I have changed myself." The words were dragged out of him by the coercion spells, and Ancar clutched the arms of his chair in glee. This had tremendous potential, oh yes, indeed.
Ancar spent as much of the creature's strength as he dared, extracting more information. Some of it he did not understand, although he expected to at some point, when he had time to question Falconsbane in detail. What was a "Hawkbrother," for instance? And what was a "Heartstone?"
But the initial information was enough. Falconsbane was an Adept; he understood the spell that Ancar had botched, although it was fortunate that he had botched it, and Ancar had no intention of revealing his inexperience. It was called a "Gate" and Falconsbane had somehow gotten caught in the backlash of a spell that had sent him into the void between Gates. Ancar had hauled him out of there, with his very wish for an Adept to come to his rescue! Falconsbane was not only an Adept, he was probably more powerful and knowledgeable than Ancar had dared to imagine. He had enemies - the "Hawkbrothers" he had mentioned, and "others from his past." He had a vast holding of his own, and Ancar guessed from descriptions that it was to the south and west of Rethwellan, out in the lands purportedly still despoiled by wild magic. He sometimes referred to himself as a "Changechild," and had said things that made Ancar think that what Falconsbane had done with his own body he could do with others. That was an exciting possibility; it meant that Ancar could infiltrate spies anywhere, simply by substituting his own changed men for people in positions of trust.
And Mornelithe Falconsbane was Ancar's entirely.
He was, however, not in very good condition. Even with Ancar's sorcerous support, he had begun to waver during the last few questions. His strength was giving out, and he was still very disoriented. His answers had all come from memory; in order to have an effective servant, he would have to be able to think, and that would require a certain amount of physical recovery.
I am going to have to get this creature back on his feet - and hide him from Hulda. If I am very, very lucky, she will have attributed the tremors in the fabric of mage-energy to her own passions. If I am not, I shall have to think of something else I could have done that would make the same ripples in the energies.
He had no doubt that if Hulda got wind of Falconsbane's existence - at least up until the Changechild was capable of defending himself - the creature would either vanish or end up in Hulda's control. It was much easier to break coercion spells from outside than it was from within them, and Hulda was still stronger than Ancar.
Now, where can I hide this little guest of mine?
He left Falconsbane slumped in the middle of the floor, and hastened down his staircase to summon more of his hand-picked servants. More members of his personal guard; men Hulda never saw, who masqueraded as stable hands and acted as spies among the lowest servants. On his instructions, they brought with them robes and a litter, bundling Falconsbane into it and covering him as if he were sick or injured. Their eyes showed not even a flicker of curiosity at the strange creature. Ancar smiled in satisfaction.
"Take him to the house of Lord Alistair," Ancar told them. "Tell Lord Alistair that he is to take care of this man, and see to it that he receives the best possible care, under constant guard." He pulled off his ring and handed it to the ranking officer. "Give him this; he will understand."
"Lord" Alistair was one of Ancar's own mages, a man he had recruited himself, and on whom he had so many coercions he did not think that Alistair would even be able to use the guarderobe without permission.
He's not powerful enough for Hulda to worry about, not attractive enough for Hulda to care about, and I doubt she's going to try to manipulate him. Even if she does, she'll leave her mark on my coercions, and I will have ample time to move my little prize before she learns about him.
The officer accepted the ring and slipped it into his belt-pouch with a bow. He waved to the others to begin the awkward task of taking the litter down the staircase as Ancar stepped back to give them room. But before they had gone more than a step, a voice emerged from the pile of robes on the litter.
"Wait - "
The men stopped, confused. Ancar moved closer to the side of the litter. A pair of feverishly bright eyes looked up at him from under the shadows of a hood.
"Who - are you?"
Ancar grinned, his spirits buoyed up by his new-found feelings of power. This was too great an opportunity to resist.
"King Ancar of Hardorn," he said, softly; then, with steel in his voice that showed he would not be trifled with, added, "But you will call me - 'Master.' "
The bright eyes flashed in impotent anger, and Ancar laughed, waving to the litter bearers to be on their way. He had the upper hand here, and he was not going to give Falconsbane a chance to regain it.
Herald Elspeth, Heir to the Kingdom of Valdemar, Adept-Mage-In-Training, Wingsister to Tayledras clan k'Sheyna, was in hot water up to her neck - again. She was immersed in a steaming pool, surrounded by Hawkbrother scouts and mages, and members of the legendary Kaled'a'in clan k'Leshya, not all of whom were human....
"This feels marvelous. I say it every day, but I'll say it again: We don't have anything like this back in Valdemar. Yet!" Elspeth smiled to her counterparts in the hot-spring grotto. "I got word from Gwena there were inventors in Haven working on a water heating system using the fires from forges. If they can make it work, I am definitely going to encourage them to make something like this."
Iceshadow k'Sheyna twisted a few strands of his waist-length, winter-white hair around his finger, and looked thoughtful. It was difficult to tell how old he was, despite the white hair; older than Elspeth, but that was about it. His smooth, sculptured face showed little sign of age, and only a few worry lines creased Iceshadow's brow as a sign of past troubles. He stretched out his arms, popping his joints softly. "You'll be taking many new ways of thinking back to your people. However," he continued, "k'Sheyna will always be a home to you."
"Very true. And while I am proud to be a Wingsister...well, as much as I love the Vales, I would like to see my old familiar surroundings. I like to travel, but I'm not really nomadic. Even people I couldn't stand back at the palace seem pleasant once I've been away from them for a while."
"I feel the same way about our Clan. Those few I disliked in person, I have come to feel affection for when away. Distance and time can do that. But I must admit," he said to Elspeth, "that despite being thrilled at the thought of seeing the rest of k'Sheyna again, this whole Gating business makes me very nervous. Making a Gate, in the heart of this Vale. . .."
It wasn't Elspeth who answered him. Firesong, who seemingly had not been paying attention to anyone but his black-haired companion Silverfox, grinned back over his shoulder at them. "Ah, there is no unstable Heartstone here, elder cousin. You have no reason to be nervous. Well, not because of Gates, anyway."
When Firesong smiled, it was difficult not to smile back. The supernally handsome Adept from the North could charm just about anyone or anything if he exerted himself, and Iceshadow was no exception to the power of that charm. "Only a node here, and another in the gryphons' ruins. Nothing to fret over. There are more than enough mages here to keep the effects of a Gate Spell balanced, and prevent a spring storm from dropping down upon us."
The older Hawkbrother laughed shakily, returning Firesong's grin. "It is difficult to convince my insides of this, youngling. We lived too long in the shadow of power we dared not trust. It can make anyone wary."
Firesong scowled a little but nodded. He, of all of them, knew best the chill of that shadow, for he had been the one most directly involved in confining it. Elspeth understood Iceshadow's meaning only too easily herself. The little time she had spent in the presence of the rogue, unstable Heartstone of k'Sheyna Vale had been more than enough to convince her that Iceshadow's fears would be hard to lay to rest.
And yet, the real damage that power had done had all been beneath the surface. This Vale had looked to her - and still did - like a little corner of the Havens itself, the realm of the gods. She looked about her, at the luxuriant life of the heart of k'Sheyna, at the incredible beauty of the flowering bushes and vines everywhere, the fluted, sculptured rocks surrounding the hot-spring-fed pool -
Then her senses took in the things that did not fit in a scene from a Valdemaran fantasy or Bardic play.
The huge trees, each supporting as many as a dozen ekele, the Tayledras treehouses. The silver-haired mages and mottled-haired scouts taking their ease in the warm waters of the pool, their exotic birds in the branches above them. Hummingbirds drifting by and hovering. The Kaled'a'in, who were clearly some kin to the Tayledras, but of more diverse breeding, some with round faces, some with green or brown eyes instead of silver-blue, and here and there a blond or a redhead. The swirl of silk and the hushed scrape and creak of well-worn leather amidst the calls of immense birds of prey.
And last of all, the gryphons lounging about in the warm sun - gryphons gray and golden-brown, peregrine-patterned and cooperi-striped, purring or cooing, and talking with Hawkbrothers -
She had a sudden feeling of disorientation, and shook her head. If, a year ago, anyone had told her that she would be soaking in a pool with a half dozen Hawkbrother mages, numbered as a Wingsister to a Hawkbrother Clan, and watching the antics of a score of legendary gryphons, she would have been certain that whoever asserted this had been severely intoxicated.
If they had told her she would be instrumental in the overthrow of a marauding evil Adept, and have a Hawkbrother lover - while her fellow Herald Skif would have an even stranger lover, the half-feline Nyara, daughter of that Adept - and that this same Nyara, and not Elspeth, would be the holder of Elspeth's sword Need -
I would have carefully caught that person off-guard, tied him up, and put in an urgent call to the MindHealers, that's what I would have done.
But MindHealing comes in many forms, and experience is the best of them. Time had passed. She'd experienced all of that and more, and still the future was wide open.
A blazingly white figure appeared at the far side of the pool, just at the edge of the spray from the tiny waterfall that cooled one end.
And right on cue, a beam of sunlight penetrated the clouds and illuminated Elspeth's Companion Gwena, framing her in a rainbow's refracted light, making her look like a horse from the home of the gods, or a Companion-illustration in some book of tales.
Several of the Hawkbrothers gazed appreciatively.
"Good entrance," Firesong laughed, approvingly. "I could not have managed better myself." Silverfox chuckled, and continued to braid the man's waist-length silver hair in an elaborate Kaled'a'in arrangement. Firesong spent most of his time with die Kaled'a'in, and surprisingly, not all of that was with the Kestra'chern Silverfox. Evidently, the Kaled'a'in had explored the usages of magic along much different lines than the Tayledras, and what he was learning from them both excited and fascinated Firesong. Among other things, they had learned how to build Vales without needing a Heartstone; old chronicles spoke of this, but the Tayledras had lost the knack. Elspeth was interested in learning this trick as well, since if it could be managed in Valdemar, it would be possible to create some very comfortable safe-havens in inhospitable territory for, say, Healer's enclaves.
Or Heralds' Resupply Stations . . . what a lovely thought.
"You look fine today," Firesong continued.
:Thank you for the compliment, my dear,: Gwena replied, winking at the Adept, her calm completely unruffled :From you, that is high praise indeed.:
Elspeth giggled. Gwena was much easier to live with these days, now that she had given up on steering Elspeth to some "destiny," and had resigned herself to the fact that Elspeth was going to make her own way whether or not Gwena liked it :So, dearheart, have you finished gossiping with Rolan?:
Gwena had been giving Rolan - the Queen's Own Companion - daily reports for the past several weeks now, as winter turned to spring, and matters in k'Sheyna Vale were slowly settled. The original plan, made in the euphoria of victory, had been to return to Valdemar immediately, and then, if their enemies gave them a chance, to explore just what, exactly, was going on with the Forest of Sorrows. Several times during their struggle with Mornelithe Falconsbane it seemed as if some power up there was interfering on their behalf. But that plan had to be amended; there were many things she needed to learn from Firesong before he returned to his own Vale, and in the end there seemed to be no real urgency in getting back to Valdemar before winter ended. Ancar had been well confined by the combined armies of Valdemar, Rethwellan, and - miracle of miracles - Karse. His mages seemed to be doing nothing, except waiting and watching. And Elspeth really didn't want to go home until the last of winter was over -
- and until memories had faded of the hideous headache that had hit every Herald and Companion in the capital city of Haven, the day that control of the Heartstone's power had been wrested from Mornelithe Falconsbane. The day that same power had come to rest somewhere in the Palace/Collegium complex, giving Haven what appeared to be a small, new and, so far, quiescent Heartstone of its own, as if it were to be a new Tayledras Vale.
Elspeth had not known this until after the fact, but as that power snapped into place, every Herald within a few leagues' radius of the capital had been struck down with a blinding, incapacitating headache. So had their Companions. For most, the worst pain had lasted no more than a few hours, but for several others, it had taken days to recover. Elspeth didn't think they were going to blame her for it - after all, no one knew the power-locus would go there! It had been intended to go to where most of k'Sheyna Clan waited, to the prepared node and carefully anchored proto-Heartstone they had waiting for it.
K'Sheyna had been very gracious about the theft of their power-source, much more gracious than Elspeth had any right to expect, and quite philosophical about it all.
Still, she didn't think that was going to soothe the ruffled feathers of those Heralds who had found themselves facedown in the snow - or the soup - or otherwise collapsed with indignity and without warning. She absolutely dreaded having to answer to Weaponsmaster Alberich and her own teacher, Herald-Captain Kerowyn. And they were both going to demand answers. They might be contemplating retribution. It would be hard to convince them that she had nothing to do with it, and that she had no idea that it was going to happen. It would be even harder to convince them it seemed to be due to some nebulous force living in the Forest of Sorrows. Neither Alberich nor Kerowyn believed in ghosts, not even Herald-Mage ghosts.
Fortunately, Rolan had been mostly immune to what Gwena later said must have been a magical backlash as the great power landed in the middle of the "Web" that connected all Heralds. He had helped calm the panic, had helped Healers and the rescuers find Heralds who had simply dropped, all over Haven. Talia had been one of the first to recover, and she had organized those who bounced back into caring for the rest until the pain passed. And Gwena passed word to Rolan that this was not some new and insidious attack from Ancar, that it was - well - an accident.
Since then, Gwena had been in daily contact with Rolan, by order of Elspeth's mother, Queen Selenay. The order had sounded less like an hysterical mother, however, and more as if it had come from Her Majesty the Queen. An hysterical mother was not something Elspeth could handle, but duty to the Queen and Realm was the first order of any Herald's life. Since Falconsbane's banishment into the Void between Gates - and highly probable death - life at k'Sheyna had been much less eventful, it was an easy order to fulfill.
The shaft of sunlight faded; still bright but no longer illuminated like the gods' own Avatar, Gwena surefootedly made her way around the pool to where her Chosen was soaking. Elspeth had been spending a great deal of time with the Kaled'a'in as well, not only to learn magic, but to learn new fighting skills. They had a number of barehanded combat techniques that could allow one who was skilled in them to take on a fighter with a weapon in his hands. Useful techniques for someone who had already faced one assassin.
But occasionally painful to learn....
:It wasn't entirely gossip, dear,: the Companion said, in Mindspeech pitched only for Elspeth to catch :Although we've been doing more of that than exchanging any real news lately. Things haven't been all that interesting around Haven or k'Sheyna Vale.:She chuckled mentally :I haven't even had to edit for your mother's consumption once during the last two weeks!:
Elspeth laughed out loud. "Just remember, heart of mine, that 'may your life be eventful' is the worst curse the Shin'a'in know!"
Iceshadow looked over at her quizzically.
"Oh. I was talking to Gwena. She said things weren't as interesting around here as they used to be."
"Ah. Indeed," Iceshadow agreed. "I will be glad, after all, to see this Gate built to the new Vale, and find myself living in times much less interesting!"
He climbed out of the pool; before he had done more than stand, a little lizardlike hertasi appeared with a speed that was close to magical. Iceshadow nodded his thanks, and accepted the thick towel the lizard handed him. Again, Elspeth was forced to confront how much she had changed.
Not only in accepting something that looked like an overgrown garden-lizard as an intellectual equal, but in other ways as well. Iceshadow wore nothing more than his long hair; in fact, no one soaking in this pool seemed terribly body-shy. A year ago she would have blushed and averted her eyes. Now she was so much more aware of what each of the Hawkbrothers and Kaled'a'in here were, their bodies were simply another garment for the spirit within.
Iceshadow wrapped the towel around himself, and the hertasi looked down at Elspeth. The little lizard-folk who had come with the Lost Clan were much bolder than the hertasi native to k'Sheyna; she hardly ever saw the latter, while the former bustled about the Vale, undoing the overgrowth of nearly a decade, as oblivious to watchers as a hive of bees. Except, of course, when someone needed something. They seemed to thrive on tending others. Silverfox had said something about that being "part of them, but hadn't elaborated except to say that it was due to their "recovery" from a long-ago trauma. She wished she knew more; there was such knowledge to learn, and so little time!
"Need towel?" it said to her. "Need drink?" While the hertasi seemed to have an instinctive ability to anticipate the needs of the Tayledras and Kaled'a'in, they were at a bit of a loss with her. Gwena and Darkwind had both tried to explain why; she was still at a loss after both explanations. The Lost Clan lizards were perfectly willing to talk to her, sometimes in Mindspeech, and often in audible speech. Even if their speech was a little difficult to understand, if they didn't mind, how could she?
"Thank you, no," she replied. "But when Darkwind gets in, he'll want food and drink, please."
The hertasi hissed, "Of course!" and vanished again. Iceshadow gave her a farewell smile, and wandered off to his own ekele barefoot. She turned to Firesong, who was leaning back against the stone of the pool's edge and enjoying the massage Silverfox was giving to his long and graceful hands.
It was hard to get her mind on business, but in the next couple of days it would be time to leave, and she had better get her mind set about doing so. "Have Treyvan and Hydona made up their minds what they want to do first?" she asked. "I'd be perfectly happy to have them come to Haven as ambassadors, but if there are more Kaled'a'in out there wanting to come back, they really ought to go to k'Treva first, as you suggested."
Firesong made a small sigh of utter contentment, and answered without opening his eyes. "I believe that I have talked them into my scheme, cousin," he replied. "K'Treva will not be long in moving on to a new Vale; there have been no troublesome outbreaks of any kind for better than a year now. Indeed, we would have moved on this winter, had it not been for your request for help. And if I may boast - k'Treva Vale is second to none. I think that our Kaled'a'in brethren would be most happy there, taking it after we have gone."
"Is that fulsome description for my benefit, shay a?" laughed Silverfox. "I promise you, there are not many who would require convincing. We had not expected to find ourselves offered safe-havens and homes, ready to our hands - yet another miracle of Treyvan and Hydona's doing. And I think that none among you will find fault with our stewardship of what you will leave behind."
The Kestra'chern tossed his dark hair over his shoulder, and moved his graceful fingers along the tendons of Firesong's wrists. Firesong sighed with content.
It was still very hard to think of Firesong as a relative, however distant. She had not even known that Herald-Mage Vanyel had left any offspring - much less that she and a Hawkbrother Healing Adept were descendants of two of them! Really, she had learned more about herself in the time she had been here than she had learned about magic....
"On the whole, I think it's a better idea," Elspeth told him. "I'm glad you talked them into it. My people are going to have enough trouble with Darkwind and a Changechild appearing on their doorstep. I'm not sure I want to subject them to gryphons and gryphlets as well."
"Ah," Silverfox said shrewdly, "But with gryphons and gryphlets, a Changechild and a Hawkbrother Adept might well look less strange. Hmm?"
"The thought had occurred to me," she admitted. "But - well, let's just leave things the way they are. The gryphons can always change their minds when Darkwind and I are ready to Gate out of k'Treva."
"And gryphons are wont to do just that," Darkwind said from behind her, where he had already begun undressing.
She turned quickly with a welcoming smile, and he slipped out of the last of his scout gear and into the warm water of the pool. "Gods of my fathers!" he groaned. "That is wonderful! I thought I had become naught but a man of ice! I have never found anything colder than a spring rain."
Elspeth could think of several - such as the snowdrifts that she and Darkwind had collapsed into in the aftermath of Falconsbane's banishment - but then, she hadn't been out on the border all day, either. Temperature seemed to depend on context.
"Just be glad that we're going to k'Treva by Gate, then," she replied. "Skif and I got here the hard way. It's a lot colder outside the Vales up north!"
She tapped his shoulder to get him to turn his back to her so that she could work on his shoulders, and his skin was still cool to the touch. He must have gotten quite thoroughly soaked and chilled while out patrolling the boundaries of k'Sheyna territory for the last few times. Soon, that would be the duty of the Kaled'a'in, and indeed, Kaled'a'in scouts were making the patrols with the Tayledras to learn the lay of the land that would soon be theirs. Darkwind had gone out alone, and come back late; she didn't even have to ask why. She knew that he was gradually saying his farewells to the hills and trees he'd known for so long.
"The gryphons are envious of Treyvan and Hydona," Darkwind continued, with an inquiring glance at Silverfox. "Apparently there's something special about the lake near k'Treva. The one the Valdemarans call Lake Evendim?"
Silverfox nodded. "It is the site of the Black Gryphon's defeat of the Dark Adept Ma'ar. They wish greatly to see this."
Elspeth laughed. "I tried to tell them that they won't see anything, that it's all under water, but they didn't care. They are still excited about the whole idea, and every other gryphon is dying for a chance to get up there, too. You'd better be careful about how many of them you let come at once, Firesong, or you'll be up to your eyebrows in gryphons!"
"I shall remember that, cousin. And warn the rest of k'Treva," Firesong replied lazily. "Not that I think such an eventuality would be altogether bad. I find them delightful company, and I'm sure the rest of my Clan will feel the same."
Darkwind snorted. "You haven't been responsible for keeping those feathered eating machines fed! Talk to me after you've been hunting for hours, trying to find something larger than a rabbit!"
Silverfox chuckled. "If you think that this is difficult," he pointed out, "think about how it must be in a Vale full of breeding gryphons. The gryphlets eat three times their body weight a day until they are fully fledged!"
Elspeth tried to imagine that, and in the end just shook her head. "No wonder you wanted to move here. How do you keep them from stripping the countryside bare?"
"We have herds," Silverfox replied. "Fear not; we have learned how to manage our own needs and balance them against the needs of the land. We have beasts that are quick to grow, and eat nearly anything. We shall start the herds as soon as you are gone."
As soon as you are gone. Darkwind turned his head to smile into Elspeth's eyes, a glint of anticipation in his, and suddenly she was impatient to get back home. He was certainly excited about the prospect of leaving his Clan and kin, and seeing new lands. And there had been so much going on that she had missed out on - the twins getting older, the alliance with Karse, Talia being made a titular Priestess of Vkandis -
It seemed to beckon her, for all the drawbacks of life there, under a kind of siege.
And now she could hardly wait.
Elspeth folded one of the scarlet silk shirts that Darkwind had designed for her; it rolled up into a surprisingly compact bundle, as did most of her Tayledras clothing. She was certainly going to cut quite a figure when she returned. She had the feeling that a lot of eyebrows were going to go up and stay up.
Things had not been as simple to take care of as they had seemed in the aftermath of the victory over Falconsbane. It had taken most of the winter for the party in search of k'Sheyna to journey overland to the new Vale and return. The very first order of business after everyone had recovered from that last confrontation with Falconsbane had been to find the new Vale again. That had taken a great deal of searching by mages who had near relatives or dear friends that had been sent on with the children and artisans. In the end they had found it by sending hummingbirds in the right general direction, keyed to those friends, and waiting for the reply.
Finally, after nerves had been strained to the breaking point, they had found the place, and then with the help of gryphon warriors aloft, two mages, the k'Sheyna Adept Silence and the Kaled'a'in Adept Summerfawn, had gone to find it and return with a mental picture of the place. No Gate could be built without knowing what the destination looked like, which made the things rather limited in practicality, so far as Elspeth was concerned. On the other hand, she was deeply grateful that this was the case; she did not even want to think of the Gate Spell in the hands of Ancar, if it made it possible for him to go and come at will to any place he cared.
Silence had returned, thin and travel-worn, but smiling and no longer silent. And now bearing the name "Snowfire," which told everyone that Silence had finally been healed of the emotional trauma that the shattering of the Heartstone and the deaths of so many of k'Sheyna had inflicted, years ago.
With that good omen, it was simply a matter of letting Snowfire rest, and then the Gate between the two Vales, old and new, could be built, and k'Sheyna would be a whole Clan once more. The Kaled'a'in had another trick up their ornamented sleeves as well; not one Adept, but two would build the Gate; Summerfawn from the new Vale and Snowfire from the old. They would build two Gates in parallel, and fuse them into one; halving the fatigue and doubling the strength.
Tomorrow. So many things would begin and end tomorrow - though there would be more endings for Darkwind than for Elspeth.
Now, with the culmination of many weeks of work at hand, Elspeth carefully packed away everything she would not need over the next two or three days. She had been a little dismayed at how much she had accumulated, but now that she had begun, she realized that most of it was clothing, and that packed down into an amazingly small volume. Probably because it was mostly silk, or something like silk....
Darkwind seemed unusually silent, although he was packing just as busily as Elspeth.
I wonder if Gwena made it plain to Mother that I'd been sharing quarters with one of my mage-teachers. Probably not. No point in giving her another thing to get hysterical about. It had seemed rather stupid to keep two ekeles when they really only needed one, especially after the arrival of the Kaled'a'in had made things suddenly rather cramped. She had moved in with him, since the ekele he had was nearer the entrance to the Vale and had more room than hers.
Perhaps they should have reversed it. Perhaps he would feel the loss less if he had already left his "home."
He tucked a folded garment into the top of a pack and laced the whole thing shut. "I am very glad that I had already left the other ekele that I had built before all this happened," he said into the silence. "That was my home - for all that it leaked cold air all winter long. Built by my hands. But it seemed foolish to be living outside the Vale once the Heartstone was shielded, so - " He shrugged. "This place we have shared is dear only because we have shared it. It gives me no great wrench to leave it for another, especially after they have had a long journey."
She stifled a sigh of relief. "I saw how packing up affected Starblade, when he and Kethra had to abandon the place Falconsbane wrecked. It was very emotional for him, and I couldn't help think that leaving your home and your Vale both at once was going to give you some problems."
He made a face and threw a shirt at her; she caught it and began folding it. "Father's emotional condition is a bit less stable than mine, I dare to think."
She nodded agreement. "Well, I for one am truly glad that Kethra is going with your father. I was afraid she might do one of those typically Shin'a'in things and declare she couldn't leave the Plains!"
Darkwind grinned, and this time tossed a pillow at her. She ducked. "You are being silly. How could she do anything like that with one of Hyllarr's feathers, beaded and braided into her hair for all to see? They are mated, silly Herald. She could no more leave him than Hyllarr can."
"Silly Herald, yourself," she retorted. "How am I to know what all these headings and braidings mean? And how in Havens am I to know one feather from another?"
He shook his head sadly. "Barbarian. Barbarian and ignorant. How could you not tell that the feather was from Hyllarr? From where else would such a great golden primary have come? There are no other birds the size of a crested hawk-eagle here!"
She cast her eyes up at the ceiling, as if praying for patience. "Just wait," she replied. "Just wait until I get you home, and you complain about not being able to tell Companions apart! Revenge will be so-o-o-o sweet!"
He only grinned and went back to his packing, and she to hers and her thoughts. Thinking about the Shin'a'in Healer Kethra made her a great deal happier than worrying about Darkwind. There were going to be problems when she got home that she'd rather not think about right now....
She and Kethra had struck up an odd friendship over the winter, and a bond forged by their love for Darkwind and Darkwind's father Starblade, cemented by the new bondbird that Darkwind and Elspeth had found for the weakened Adept. From the very moment that charming Hyllarr had come into Starblade's life, his recovery from the terrible damage Falconsbane had done to him had been assured. For that alone, Elspeth suspected, Kethra would have been inclined to like her, although Hyllarr's discovery was still sheer good luck in Elspeth's mind. But they were surprisingly alike, and that helped; Kethra had been able to deliver authoritative conversations on caring and partnering that would have been a lecture coming from anyone else, but seemed no more than good advice from Kethra.
It was due to Kethra's suggestions that Darkwind, Skif, and Elspeth, together and separately, had urged Starblade and Wintermoon - Darkwind's half brother - to begin simply talking to one another. Wintermoon had long envied Darkwind's favored-son relationship with his father, and had withdrawn from Starblade when quite young. Kethra felt that the time was long past when they should have reversed that withdrawal.
Now - with Kethra, Darkwind, Elspeth, and Skif urging and encouraging, Starblade and Wintermoon had begun building the father-son relationship they had never really enjoyed. Another sign of healing, perhaps, but just as importantly it was a sign that Starblade felt worthy of having relationships at all.
Darkwind had said at one point that he thought in some ways this was the easiest of the relationships for Starblade to establish. There had been so much that had been warped and destroyed of the relationship between Darkwind and his father, that even trying to reestablish it was painful. And so much about loving had been tainted by Falconsbane that simply to permit Kethra into his heart must have been an act of supreme and terrible courage for Starblade.
Yet another thing Falconsbane has to answer for, whatever hell he's in, Elspeth thought angrily. The beast.
In many, many ways, it was a good thing that Darkwind and Starblade would be separated for a while. That would give emotional scars a chance to really heal without constant contact irritating them; give Starblade time to find a new way to think of his son - as something other than a little copy of himself that had been his pride.
And it would give Darkwind time to reconcile everything that he had endured.
I think emotional damage is harder to heal than physical damage. . . .
Well, tomorrow would put that distance between them. And if it had not been for Clan k'Leshya and the gryphons, instrumental in helping to find the exact physical location of the rest of k'Sheyna, the healing process would have been put off a lot longer. That alone had succeeded in convincing the last diehards of k'Sheyna that the Kaled'a'in deserved the stewardship of the old Vale. If they had not generously volunteered their help, it would have taken months to locate the Clan and get an Adept in place who could handle the Gate Spell from the other end.
She looked around for something else to pack, and realized that there was nothing left. Darkwind's collection of feather-masks had been carefully packed up by one of his hertasi, and the walls were bare. Books and furniture would be left behind for the next occupant. Small keepsakes and jewelry had been tucked into odd corners of packs; feathers likewise. The few papers and notebooks Darkwind meant to take with him were already in the last pack. That left only the clothing they would need for the next couple of days.
Elspeth was not even taking her old Whites, nor was Skif. The hertasi, particularly the Kaled'a'in hertasi, had made their disdain of those plain, utilitarian garments very obvious. She had finally given in to their unremitting pressure to let them "make something better." She had only specified that the resulting clothing must follow the same general lines as the old Whites and must be completely white. Not ecru, not eggshell, not ivory, nor pearl-gray, nor pale pink. White. The clothing must be functional; ornamentation must not be any color but white, and it must not catch on things, tear off, or glitter in the sun to give her away -
"As if big white target in green field not give you away," one of the k'Leshya hertasi had replied in scorn.
She suspected that in the end the hertasi, frustrated, had appealed to Darkwind for help; certainly the new Whites had his touch about them. And it was possible to see the pattern of the originals in the new uniforms. But there the resemblance had ended.
Flowing sleeves caught in long, close cuffs at the wrists, white-on-white embroidery and even beadwork, leathers softer even than deerskin with cut-out patterns as elaborate as lace and long fringe that fell like a waterfall, beautifully tooled and fringed boots and half-boots, and more of the ubiquitous silk so beloved of the Tayledras - the clothing was far more exotic than she could have imagined Whites would be. And, somewhat to her own surprise, she liked them. Even more to her surprise, so did Skif, who asked the hertasi to make him something suited to his size and frame - and style.
So the hertasi had their hearts' desire, and took apart the old Whites to be used as scrap material and cleaning rags. And the two Heralds would be returning not only splendidly garbed themselves, but with matching gear for their Companions, who gloated that they would be the envy of the Collegium.
"We will do well wherever we go. Home should be in your heart, the Shin'a'in say. Worry not about me," Darkwind said, breaking the silence of Elspeth's thoughts.
"I'll always worry about you. At least a little. I guess we're done," she said, uncertainly. Darkwind laced his pack shut and stood up, smiling.
"Not quite yet, I think," he replied - and before she could react, he caught her up in his arms and tumbled her into their bed.
"We have all evening, and no duties, kechara," he said, between kisses. "And I at least, had plans - or at least, hopes...."
Given all the unexpected disasters that had followed them, Elspeth more than half expected something to interfere with the opening of the Gate the next morning.
But nothing happened. Those among the gryphons and humans that were relatively low-level mages, or even simply mage-apprentices, contained and smoothed over the power-fluxes caused by diverting the energy-flows at both ends of the Gate. Elspeth had not, in fact, been aware of such work until months ago, after the attempt to move the Heartstone power. Firesong had pointed it out to her with his usual seriousness.
"Never underestimate the importance of even an apprentice," he had told her. "Their work goes on constantly, so that we do not so greatly upset all the balances of power and nature that we drive the weather and the ley-lines wild with our actions. If they were not at work, every time an Adept reached out with some major spellcasting, we would be plagued by at least one terrible storm, and perhaps more; the effects tend to be cumulative. Sometimes Adepts forget to thank their so-called 'lesser' cousins, but if it were not for them, we would be greatly handicapped, and everyone for leagues about would curse our names!"
Even so, it was wise to make certain of the weather before attempting a Gate. If there had been any storms in the neighborhood, the attempt would have been delayed.
The appointed day dawned clear and bright, and all of k'Sheyna except Darkwind, Skif, and Elspeth gathered in a pack-burdened crowd before a carved arch, created by the hertasi expressly for the purpose of giving the new Gate its physical frame. That it stood on the exact spot where the old Heartstone had been was an irony that was not lost on anyone.
Snowfire stood before the arch, her eyes closed in concentration. A half dozen Hawkbrothers in blue robes cast a carefully-prepared, bright-feathered bundle of incense and aromatic leaves into the brazier that honored the Tayledras lost over the years the Vale had been in existence. The entire group bowed their heads in a silent prayer, and the blue smoke from the brazier dwindled down as Snowfire prepared the Gate.
There would be no physical signs of the powers being called into play until the Gate opened, but Elspeth was watching with what Firesong called "the Inner Eye," and the sight was quite impressive.
Snowfire built up the framework of the Gate with power spun from her own resources; she was connected to the Gate by a scintillating cord of energy, multicolored and shining, energy that spun out from her like spidersilk, and came to rest in a continuously shifting pattern laid over the arch. And spinning out from the Gate, reaching off into the void, were more little threads, exactly like the "flying threads" of baby spiders, catching the wind of the void and seeking their anchor.
There was a moment's transition between this Gate-form and the finished Gate. Suddenly, it felt to Elspeth as if the ground dropped out from beneath her for a moment.
Then, instead of the other side of the clearing, there was another side of - something else. Summerfawn k'Leshya stood framed inside the archway, and behind her was a crowd of Tayledras, strangers to Elspeth, who cheered and beckoned.
There might have been sentimental reluctance to leave on the part of some, but at the sight of all those k'Sheyna, a half dozen seized packs and flung themselves through the portal, into the arms of those who awaited them; the rest picked up their belongings and proceeded in a more orderly, but nonetheless eager, fashion. Through it all the two mages holding the Gate stood like rocks, impervious and oblivious.
Starblade came toward Darkwind, with Hyllarr waddling along the ground behind him. The hawk-eagle walked whenever speed was not a factor; his wing never had healed so well that he could fly strongly, and he would have been a terrible burden even for someone like Wintermoon to carry. So he walked. It was not a graceful gait, for no raptor is terribly graceful on the ground, but it served, and it kept Starblade from having to carry him very often. Starblade was the strongest he had been in months, but the weight of a carried raptor seemed to multiply with each passing minute.
Hyllarr leapt to a low branch with only three wing-beats, and regarded the departing Tayledras. Starblade stood on his own before Darkwind, without resting on his walking stick.
"It is time to go, son," the elder Tayledras said quietly, as more of k'Sheyna filed through the arch. "I have not said so until now, but what you are about to do is more important than a single Clan, Darkwind. You carry the bravery of all our ancestors with you, not just k'Sheyna. I am proud of you, and where your mother is, she is proud of you as well."
Darkwind swallowed audibly. Although he had been determined to remain stoic, his throat tightened and his jaw twitched. His father had not spoken to him of his mother with anything besides a tone of self-pity and grief. Now, he spoke of her memory as something factual, not as something that was a knife through his heart. He was healing, and becoming better than he was before. The simple bravery of speaking plainly what was in his heart brought back early childhood memories of how Starblade was invincible and unshakable in Darkwind's eyes.
"I send my prayers with you, my son." Starblade smiled crookedly, and for a moment, many of his years dropped away. The creases of worry and pain changed to become smile-lines, something that hadn't crossed Starblade's face in recent memory. "When you return, you will surely have more tales of life in the Outlands than any scribe will ever be able to pen. And some of them might even be true!"
Darkwind laughed, and embraced his father with none of the hesitancy that such embraces had caused before. His own tears touched his father's. "And I expect to hear many tales of your own adventures in dealing with a wild Shin'a'in and a crafty hawkeagle! I think that between them, they will give you no end of excitement!"
:!?: Hyllarr replied, in feigned innocence :Not I! Am only meek, crippled bird.:
A shadow and rustle of cloth announced Kethra's approach. "I most certainly shall keep his days and nights active," the Shin'a'in Healer said firmly, taking her turn to embrace Elspeth and Darkwind. "Take care of each other, children," she added giving them each a penetrating glance. "Remember, together you are far stronger than you are individually. I think that is something that no enemy will ever be prepared for."
Starblade took Elspeth into his arms, and whispered into her ear, "Watch over my son, dear lady. He is unused to having someone to guard his back, and may not ask for help. Give it anyway, unasked."
"I will," she promised fervently, and kissed him, an act that surprised them both and clearly delighted Starblade.
Starblade lifted his walking stick, and Kethra took the other end onto her shoulder as he did the same. Hyllarr glided down from the branch and alighted between them. His talons closed firmly on the walking stick and he folded his wings, accepting a caress from Starblade. Then it was time, and they took their places as the last in the line.
"Clear skies, Father."
"Wind to thy wings, my son. I love you."
And then they were gone.
Snowfire seemed to wake from her trance; she glanced around the clearing to make certain that there were no stragglers. She saw that Summerfawn already stood on this side. Her eyes took in the smoldering embers of the brazier. Then without a single backward look, she strode across the threshold of the Gate.
With a flare of energy, the Gate collapsed.
And for the first time, Darkwind, Elspeth, and Skif were the only k'Sheyna left in the heart of what had been k'Sheyna Vale.
The Kaled'a'in clan k'Leshya had been in possession of the Vale for less than a day, and already the place had taken on an entirely new personality.
The Kaled'a'in had waited politely for the former owners to leave before so much as changing a single bush; now they swung into action, taking plans that had been made weeks ago and turning them into reality. The highest ekeles were to be converted for use by gryphons after appropriate strengthening, and gryphons and hertasi were checking the hillsides around the Vale, and the cliffs at the rear, for suitable lair locations above, and hertasi and kyree dens below. There were more birds in the air now; not only raptors of bondbird breeding, who had come to the Vale in answer to some unspoken call, but small, colorful creatures in feathered harlequin coats of red, blue, green, and yellow, with raptorial hooked bills and an uncanny ability to mimic human voices. A trio of Kaled'a'in mages began setting up new defenses and Veils to protect the place from the weather as the old Veil faded; rather than receiving power from the nonexistent Heartstone, these defenses would take their energy from a webwork of ley-lines the Kaled'a'in would arrange around the perimeter, lines which would in turn be fed from the node under the ruins where Treyvan and Hydona had nested.
Tervardi and kyree, creatures Elspeth had seen only rarely, were part of Clan k'Leshya; considered to be full members and not merely allies. So were the hertasi, who bustled about, full of energy, rearranging things to the new Clan's liking now that the old owners had gone.
One thing they were doing was trimming back much of the vegetation. While Elspeth had enjoyed the wildly overgrown Vale with its many shroudings of vine curtains and maskings of flowering bushes, she had to admit that it was a bit difficult to get around in. Every time someone had stormed off in a temper, or had to run somewhere in an emergency, he (or she) had usually wound up with minor scrapes and cuts, leaving behind shredded vegetation. The hertasi were taming all that, opening up sunny clearings, making it possible to travel down arched paths without risking strangulation. All the while, those places that needed a certain amount of privacy were left with their surrounding bushes and vines relatively intact. But as Elspeth saw, when she poked her head into the work-in-progress around one of her favorite small hot springs, they were trimming away growth inside the area, so that leaves and dead flowers no longer dropped into the pool to foul it.
Nets were being strung for vines to creep through until they could support themselves and provide more privacy in strategic places. Poles were planted by the hertasi, for the greenery to grow against. Dust kicked up by the work filtered through the sunlight as dancing motes of light. Nothing would be quite the same when they were done.
They were scrubbing the stones of the edge, and sifting debris out of the sand at the bottom. Already the water ran clearer. She left the area of the spring much impressed.
The little that Elspeth knew of the Shin'a'in she had learned from Kethra, but it seemed to her that these people were very different from both the Shin'a'in and the Tayledras. They were less solitary than the Tayledras, though more so than the Shin'a'in. They were certainly noisier than the Tayledras. Every job was accompanied by the murmur of human voices blended with hertasi hisses, tervardi trills, kyree growls, dyheli chuckles, and the bass rumblings of gryphons. The Vale as populated by the k'Sheyna had seemed deserted; the Vale as populated by k'Leshya was as full of activity as the Palace/Collegium complex.
Not all of k'Leshya would live inside the Vale. Some would take over the lair begun by Treyvan and Hydona in the ruins overlooking the Dhorisha Plains. They had brought the books that Darkwind had helped build shelves for so long ago.
Others would take the ekeles that had been made by the k'Sheyna scouts, surrounding the Vale. Most of the artisans and craftspeople, scholars, and those families with young children would live in the Vale itself - those who were most vulnerable, and most in need of protection. Silverfox had told Elspeth that they hoped to begin a thriving trade with the Shin'a'in, and even with Outsiders. "We use very little magic in everyday things," he had told her. "Mostly for self-defense. But we are fine craftsmen, and trade is how we would prefer to make our Clan prosper."
Even the gryphons? she had wondered. She couldn't see how the gryphons, with those massive talons, could craft anything. Treyvan had needed Darkwind's help just to install a simple set of shelves. But then again, perhaps there were things those talons were good for. Piercing practically anything that needed a hole in it, for one thing....
And gryphons were strong. She'd already seen a gryphon dragging a man-sized log in its beak. Treyvan and Hydona were mages; a little magic went a long way when it came to crafting things. Maybe all the gryphons were mage-craftsmen.
Maybe I just shouldn't worry about it. They hardly need my help or approval!
There seemed to be less activity up near the waterfall, so that was where she went. Everywhere else she got the feeling she was in the way. Perhaps not everything in the Vale would be changed; the k'Leshya had not touched the waterfall and the pool below except to trim back some branches. It was possible to watch several groups hard at work from here without getting underfoot.
She settled down on a sculptured stone, fascinated by the coordinated working party of two gryphons, two humans, a tervardi, and three hertasi who were opening up an ekele for use by gryphons. They were taking out partitions and creating landing platforms on the roof. The gryphons pulled massive coils of twisted cord with their beaks from the corners of the platforms. Steadying themselves with their wings, they increased the tension as a hertasi directed them. Tervardi scrambled over the construction and reported to the hertasi, and holding pins were hammered in by the humans. Elspeth had never taken much notice of construction workers around the Palace, but these workers fascinated her.
Darkwind found her still gazing almost a candlemark later.
He sat down beside her, shaking his head, as his forestgyre Vree winged in and took a perch in a nearby bush. "They confuse me," he said without prompting. "I like them, indeed, but they confuse me deeply. Here - they make so much noise, and yet when we are outside the Vale even the largest gryphon makes no more sound than a leaf falling. They move like they are dancing. And their customs - "
Again he shook his head; Elspeth took his hand and squeezed it. "It's just because they are really like your people, but not quite identical," she said comfortingly. "That's all. For you, it's kind of the way I felt when I was learning your tongue. I already knew some Shin'a'in, and it was very confusing when you said something that wasn't quite what I knew. It was just similar enough that I felt I ought to know it, and different enough that I couldn't understand."
His puzzled look cleared. "Exactly. That is what I could not put into words. It is very strange to find those who are not human as full Clan members, for instance. I think it a good idea, but I find it strange. They are planning even their homes with that in mind, for instance - rebuilding the stairs to suit not only human feet but kyree, and reinforcing the floors and adding landing porches for gryphons. The lower floors even have ramps for dyheli. All their thoughts run like that. We built to accommodate our bondbirds, but not to suit anything else other than humans. They consider first how any decision will affect all the beings of the Clan."
Elspeth nodded, understanding now what he meant. As considerate as k'Sheyna had been, they would never have considered modifying their homes to suit other creatures. And they would never have taken the needs of the nonhu-mans into consideration when making any kind of major decision.
Not only the needs, but the abilities - she thought, watching two of the gryphons hovering, holding a thin beam aloft so that it could be set into place and pegged there. Darkwind had seen that they had strengths the humans did not - and his former lover Dawnfire had used those often-discounted abilities of the nonhumans. But k'Leshya counted on them; the nonhumans were integral to any plan.
The unfamiliar as an ally.
Darkwind watched the construction work for a moment, and nodded with admiration, his pale blue eyes candid and open. "It is amazing," he said at last. "In a few weeks' time, I shall not know this place." He brushed a strand of silver hair out of his eyes. "In a few years, it will look like nothing that Tayledras built."
"Do you ever want to come back here?" Elspeth asked hesitantly. "I know Firesong is talking about doing so."
But Darkwind shook his head. "I do not think so. I think that no matter what the next few moons bring us, we will be too busy to even consider such a thing. Firesong has good reason to come here, for he is a Healing Adept and k'Leshya has many new magics he wishes to learn. But I am not even well-practiced in our own magics."
"You aren't exactly inept, lover," she smiled.
"Heh. Thank you, bright feather. I would prefer to wait on the learning of new magics until I am more comfortable with the known."
She laughed a little ruefully at that. Over the past several weeks she had found it much easier to admit her own shortcomings since Darkwind had become so open about his. And her shortcomings were many - not the least of which was that she had come so late into her mage-training. She still felt like a stone skipping across ice when she thought about magery in general. "That sounds like something I would say! I had no idea there was so much to learn - nothing I ever read in any of the histories said anything about needing lesser mages to take care of the things unbalanced by Adept spells. The histories just said that a great mage did - thus - and said nothing about what went on behind the spell-casting."
Darkwind leaned back against the sun-warmed rock. "Not all Adept spells require such a thing," he corrected. "Only those which cannot be performed from within proper shielding - or which are not performed from within proper shielding. And then, only those which manipulate great amounts of energy. There are different ways of accomplishing the same result."
She saw the differences, and nodded. "And anything that changes the force-lines, or creates nodes, or whatever, right? Darkwind, just what is the difference between a node and a Heartstone?"
He blinked at her, as if he wasn't certain he had heard her correctly, then instead of answering, asked her a question. "Where does the energy go when it flows into a node?"
She was used to that now; if she didn't know the answer, he asked her a question that would make her see the answer for herself, rather than simply telling her. It had been infuriating, at first, but she had to admit that the answers stuck with her much better when she had to deduce them for herself. "It flows right back out on another - oh! Now why didn't I see that before?" She shook her head, annoyed. "How could I be so stupid? The difference between a node and a Heartstone is that the energy doesn't flow out of a Heartstone. It all stays there. I can't imagine why I didn't see that; it's like a lot of rivers flowing into a sea, and who ever heard of a river flowing out of a sea?"
"Well, at least it does not flow out on another ley-line," Darkwind amended. "Power is taken from a Heartstone, of course, or it would build up past the point where it could be contained. It is used to provide the power for all the things in the Vale that require such power. But that is our great secret, the construction of such a thing. Even had Falconsbane succeeded in stealing the proto-Heartstone, I do not think he could have turned it into a real one. He would have to have given it an outflowing ley-line, however small, and all he would have had would have been, in the end, no more than an exceptionally strong node. Not that such a node would not have granted him great power! But it would not have been the power of a Heartstone, which has no known equal to my people. It is the fact that a Heartstone has no such way to relieve the pressure of the contained power that makes a Heartstone so very powerful."
"But the one in Haven now is a Heartstone, and not a node, right?" she asked anxiously.
He shrugged. "It appears so, yes, but I cannot be certain until I can view it myself. At the moment it is a guess, an assumption, based on some signs we can See at this great distance. If it is - well, that means that whatever force sent it there knows how to create Heartstones, or cause a waiting one to settle. And what that could portend, I do not know."
"I don't either," she replied. Although that was not strictly true, since the force that had sent the proto-Heartstone to Haven instead of the new k'Sheyna Vale had come from the North of Valdemar, and in the North of Valdemar was the Forest of Sorrows....
"Well, Firesong has cloistered himself away for a day and a night, to rebuild his own energy levels, so we cannot ask him," Darkwind said with a hint of unease in his blue eyes. "I suspect he would only shrug and look mysterious, though."
"Probably," Elspeth chuckled, trying to remove the unease. "You know what a showman he is, he can't even drink a cup of chava without making a production out of it. At any rate, in two days we'll have some of our answers, when we get to k'Treva, and we can consult the mages there. The rest can wait until we reach Valdemar. Certainly whatever is under Haven can wait until then." They had all decided that the first step on their journey would be to return to k'Treva with Firesong. Elspeth had hoped that this would make the change from Darkwind's home in the Vale to Valdemar less of a shock. Only Firesong could create the Gate for this journey, but the Gate would not have to be held open for so great a span of time, so only one Adept would be needed. And while the creation of a Gate was no small task, it was one that Firesong had undertaken so many times that with due preparation, he would emerge into his home Vale in fairly good shape, not as drained and exhausted as Darkwind. Besides, once there, he would have his own Heartstone, keyed to the mages of k'Treva, to draw upon to replenish his resources.
Darkwind remained silent after that last comment, and Elspeth wondered now if she should have left all mention of Valdemar out of the conversation. She had been very reluctant to discuss anything past their departure from k'Treva, and she had sensed a corresponding reluctance in Darkwind. He was going with her; that much was absolutely certain. But she would no longer be simply Elspeth k'Sheyna k'Valdemar at that point; she would be a princess, the Heir, and on her home ground, with responsibilities to Valdemar that went far beyond personal feelings. For that matter, she hadn't thought much about those responsibilities of late.
I should. I need to weigh them all out, and decide what is important and what isn't. And what I am actually able to do. And, a little reluctantly, she decided one other thing. I need to talk to Gwena. If there's anyone that can discuss where my responsibilities end and stupid customs begin, it's her. She nibbled her lip uneasily. Gwena had been very agreeable lately; maybe too much so. On the other hand, the Companion had sworn she was not going to attempt to manipulate her Chosen any more.
But did she say she would do so any less? Hmm....On the other hand, she admitted she had no real control over her Chosen. And Gwena's disposition lately had been as cheerful as this sunny day. Whether it would continue to be so, if Elspeth did something totally against her Companion's advice, was a good question.
Well, there was no point in getting worked up over something that was days, weeks, perhaps months away. But it might be a good idea to drag Gwena off for a long heart-to-heart talk now.
She squeezed Darkwind's hand again, and he smiled at her. "I'm going to make a round of the Vale to make sure I haven't forgotten anything we might need," she told him, as an excuse to get Gwena alone for that long talk. "It won't take more than a candlemark or two. Where shall I meet you?"
"Right here?" he offered. His expression lightened considerably, and his eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. "It's about the least-busy place in the Vale at the moment; I was half afraid to go to our ekele lest I be thrown out by a work crew!"
She laughed, and tossed her hair over her shoulder - now it was long enough to toss, for the first time in years. "I think they'll be polite enough to wait until we're gone, but you ought to take Vree outside the Vale for a hunt. Maybe you and I have been working our tails off, but I think he's been bored."
Nearly invisible in the bush, Vree made a chortling sound :Good Elspeth,: he Mindspoke - more in images than in words :Keep this mate, Darkwind. Elspeth bright/clever/wise.:
Darkwind flushed, but Elspeth only chuckled and made a mock bow to the forestgyre in the branches. "Thank you, Vree, for your unvarnished and candid opinion."
Darkwind rose and offered her his hand to help her up. "I expect I'd better, before he offers any more unvarnished opinions. A good chase followed by a full crop should keep him quiet - so he doesn't lecture me as often as Gwena lectures you!"
Nyara separated her hair with clawed fingertips and began braiding it as she watched Skif from a corner of their shared ekele. She had considerably less to pack than anyone else, other than, perhaps, the gryphons. Just herself, two changes of clothing, a set of armor made by the hertasi, and a very large and vocal sword....
:I'll thank you not to think of me as baggage, young lady,: Need said dryly, but softened it with a chuckle :Baggage can only hinder, after all:
:Oh, you can hinder, too, my teacher - when you choose to,: Nyara replied saucily, as she bound off the little braid she wore at the side of her head with a thin strip of twine.
"Is Need putting her point in again?" Skif asked, looking up from his own packing. Nyara watched him with a great deal of admiration; she could not for a moment imagine how he was getting so many things into those small packs.
"Why, yes!" she said in surprise. "How can you tell?"
He chuckled and put one gentle finger right between her eyebrows. "Because you get a little crease here when you Mindspeak with her, and you only get it then." He raised a bushy eyebrow at the sword, and addressed Need directly. "Well, dear lady, do you think you are prepared for Valdemar?"
:Is Valdemar prepared for me, might be the real question, insolent brat,: Need countered :l'm not at all certain that anyone there is.:
"Well, I'm entirely certain that they're not," Skif replied, with a laugh. He ran one hand through his curly dark hair and waggled his eyebrows at both the sword and her bearer. "You're not the same sword that left. I think Kero is going to be quite happy to have you at someone else's side, all things considered. I don't even want to contemplate the clash of personalities that would ensue if you went back to her."
:I'd win,: Need stated arrogantly.
But Skif shook his head. "With all due respect, my lady, I know you both and I think it would be a draw," Skif told her. "Kero is just as stubborn as you are. What's more, that would just be if the confrontation was one-on-one. With Sayvil on her side, you wouldn't stand a chance."
:Hmm.:The sword thought that over for a moment, then turned to a more impartial judge, one who was cropping grass beneath the ekele Skif and Nyara shared :Cymry? What do you think?:
Skif's Companion shook her head noisily, and glanced up at the open windows of the ekele. Skif had yet to figure out how the sword could talk to both Cymry and Gwena, when Companions were only supposed to be able to Mindspeak their own Heralds.
But then, Need was a law unto herself. How else to characterize a kind of ghost bespelled into a magical blade, an artifact of such age that the places she had known as a woman didn't even exist on maps anymore?
:I think even you would be no match for Kero and Sayvil together,: Cymry said decisively :And your magic would give you no edge - pun intended - if Sayvil were to bend her will against yours.:
If a sword could be said to sigh, Need did so :No respect,: she complained :Now silly white horses are punning at me. Ah, well. At least my bearer appreciates me, even if she does think of me as baggage.:
Nyara giggled, and Skif smiled at her. The sound that she made rather surprised her; she had not done much laughing in her short lifetime, and it seemed as if all of it had been occurring in the last year.
Since Skif. The conclusion was as inescapable as her feelings for him. And his feelings for her. When the plans for their departure from the Vale had been discussed, Nyara had entertained no doubts; she would go with Skif, even into a place that had never seen anything like her kind before, and endure whatever came.
Whatever came - it could be some formidable opposition from his own people. She did not look very - human. Her father, Mornelithe Falconsbane, had used her as a kind of experimental model of himself, working the changes he wished to make on his own flesh upon hers first. She had no illusions about herself; she knew there was no disguising her strange, catlike features. What would people who had never seen anything that was not completely human think of her?
What would they think when they learned that Skif, one of their precious Heralds, was her lover?
:Don't lose that smile, Kitten,: Need said, as she tensed unconsciously :Remember, you have Cymry favoring you, and you have me. These Heralds listen to their horses, and the horses don't give advice so often that they can afford to be ignored. And as Skif pointed out, I'm not the sword that left. I'm better. In fact - :Need produced another one of her dry mental chuckles, like the creaking of forge bellows : - in a sense, you will have them by the proverbial short hairs. They can't afford to offend Skif by treating you poorly; he'II leave. They can't afford the loss of a single Herald right now, not with a war on the horizon. That Ancar character is not going to give up, and we're just lucky he's been so busy stewing his own little pot that he hasn't come roaring up to the Border before this. But besides Skif, they certainly can't afford to do without me! I may not be an Adept by the current standards, but I can do a great many things that an Adept can do, and some that I suspect no one knows how to do anymore. I'm a mage that is utterly unpredictable and unexpected. I can shield my powers and yours; I can look like nothing more than an ordinary sword if I try hard. No one else that I know of can do that. We're too valuable to lose, my dear. Remember, where you go, I go.:
Nyara considered this seriously; it was an advantage she had not put into her calculations :Do you mean you would be willing to coerce all of Valdemar - :
:Blackmail them to be certain you are happy?: Need finished for her :ln a moment. Without a second thought. I don't have any stake in their little war, and now that I'm awake, I don't send my bearer rushing to the side of whatever female is in trouble. What happens with Ancar is not necessarily my concern. If Selenay wants me fighting on the side of Valdemar, she's going to have to make certain you are treated well.:
Nyara was taken aback, but in a flattered and delighted way. She had not expected such a strong response from her teacher; she hadn't let herself expect any backing at all. Need had taught her to be self-sufficient, at the cost of many hard and bitter lessons. To depend on no one but herself - while at the same time learning to give another her trust as a partner.
:Yes, you could face them alone,: Need said, answering her unspoken thoughts :You have the strength to do so. You are willing to. That's what matters, and if you hadn't been ready, I'd have taken steps to make you ready before you got there, and then I would have backed you. You 've earned it. Skif will back you; you've more than earned his trust, as well as his - yes, I'll say it - love. And Cymry will back you because she knows you're one of the best partners Skif could have. Kitten, you are a fine person. And we'll give that fine person the support she deserves.:
Nyara blinked back tears from burning eyes, quickly, before Skif could see them :I do not know what to say.:
:Kitten, don't think this is going to be easy,: the sword cautioned :I can't change people's minds or attitudes, nor can Skif or Cymry. People have to change their minds because they want to. You are still going to be the strangest thing they have seen in a long time. But at least I can make certain that you know what a brave child you are. Anything else, you're just going to have to deal with.:
Nyara nodded, slowly :I think I can do that,: she replied :It can be no worse than life in my father's fortress. And I will have Skif, and you, so it will be better, for I will have no chance to be lonely.:
Again, the dry chuckle :I'm glad you remembered to put me in there somewhere!:
There was not a large gathering at the carved arch the next morning; only a few gryphons, one or two of the Kaled'a'in mages that Firesong had been exchanging techniques with, and of course, Silverfox. That was something of a relief to Elspeth, since she had hoped to slip out of k'Leshya Vale with a minimum of fuss. The less fuss, the better for everyone. She was hoping Darkwind could continue to keep up his eager interest despite leaving everything he had ever known.
She hoped. There was no real way to tell, after all, how he was likely to react.
But he seemed cheerful enough, as the hertasi brought the last of their packs to be loaded on the two Companions, Firesong's blazingly white dyheli stag, and (temporarily) on the gryphons, who were willing to bear the burdens through the Gate to save strain on Firesong.
And, as usual, the young Adept looked as if he had been groomed to within an inch of his life by an entire troupe of hertasi. His long hair flowed down his back in a deceptively simple arrangement. His sculptured face wore an expression of interest and amusement. Although it was warmer, he had donned pristine white robes of exotic style and cut - exotic even by Tayledras standards. His ice-white firebird sat on his shoulder and regarded the company with a resigned silver-blue eye. The snow-white dhyeli stag that had brought him to the Vale waited beside him, as still as any marble statue. As usual, he looked magnificent.
"Well, I have had converse with my mother and father," Firesong said, as soon as Skif and Nyara arrived and took their places. "I have warned them that I am about to Gate to k'Treva, as we discussed, and that I will have four of k'Sheyna, Companions, gryphons, and a most gallant kyree with me."
He bowed gallantly to Rris, who wagged his tail and grinned with his tongue lolling out of his mouth. Rris had agreed to come along both to act as guardian and teacher to the gryphlets, and to chronicle whatever happened as an "impartial" observer. That was Rris' chosen function, after all; the kyree had an extensive oral history, and Rris was one of their historians. Although his specialty seemed to be the tales of his "famous cousin Warrl," Elspeth knew that he would rather have had his tail pulled out than miss a chance to see what happened in this new alliance of Tayledras, Kaled'a'in, and Valdemaran.
"So, my ladies and lords, if you are all prepared to depart?" Firesong indicated the arch that would contain the Gate with a nod of his statuesque head, and everyone present made some indication of agreement.
Elspeth had long since gotten over being surprised at how little time it took Firesong to accomplish anything magical. Between one heartbeat and the next, he had established the Gate itself. In the next heartbeat, he had sought out the terminus in k'Treva Vale. In the third, he had anchored it, and the Gate stood open, ready to use, the greenery of k'Treva showing through on the other side, looking disconcertingly like and unlike k'Sheyna Vale.
"After you," Skif said to Elspeth a little nervously, eying the portal which had been empty one moment, then black as pitch, then filled with scenery which was not the same as the clearing they stood in. She hid her smile, took Darkwind's hand, and together they stepped through -
She had been told she would feel something like a little jolt; a shock as she passed across the intervening "real" distance. But instead of a shock, she felt a moment of disorientation -
She clutched at Darkwind's hand; there was something pulling and twisting, rippling across the power that held the Gate! He stared at her, his eyes wide - then he and everything else blurred and faded for a moment. Vree spread his wings and mantled in alarm; his beak opened, but nothing emerged.
She might have screamed; it didn't matter, for in that moment that they hung in the Void between Gates, no sound she made would be heard.
Then, just as suddenly, they dropped down with a lurch, safely on the other side. Vree was screaming, still agitated.
They were through. Except - it was not where they were supposed to be.
She looked around wildly, for there was no expanse before a carved archway; no wild and exotic foliage, and no waiting Tayledras. They stood on a dense mat of browned evergreen needles, in a tiny clearing. Behind them was the rough mouth of a cave. Before them was a northern forest, with no one at all in sight. The air was sharp and cool, spicy with pine-scent and mountain-odors. This was upland country; northern country - farther north than most of Valdemar.
Darkwind seized her elbow as she stood there aghast, wondering what had gone wrong, and hurried her out of the way. Just in time; first Skif and Nyara emerged, followed by the Companions, then the gryphons and their young, then Rris, the dyheli, and Firesong. All of them emerged with the same shocked, puzzled look on their faces.
Firesong was more than shocked, he was startled into speechlessness.
Darkwind seized him, jarring the firebird on his shoulder, which flapped its wings and uttered a high-pitched whistle of distress. "What happened?" he demanded harshly. "This is not k'Treva!"
Firesong only shook his head numbly. "I - " he faltered, at a loss for the first time since Elspeth had known him. "I do not know! I might err in just where a Gate opens, any mage might - but it must go to some place that I, personally, know! And I do not know this place. I have never seen it in my life!"
Skif looked around wildly, as Nyara took a wary grip on Need's hilt. "Where are we, then?" he demanded.
No one had an answer for him.
Mornelithe Falconsbane lay quietly in his silk-sheeted bed and feigned sleep. He was still uncertain of many things. His memories were still jumbled, but the bonds upon his powers told him the most important facet of his current condition.
He was a prisoner.
Still, it could be worse. He might be a captive, but at least his captivity featured all the luxurious appointments and appearance of being an honored guest.
But it was captivity nonetheless.
Falconsbane was not the master here; that young upstart puppy called "Ancar" was. That alone rankled, although he endeavored not to show how much.
He spent most of his time in sleep, either real or feigned. He was not at all prosperous at the moment, and he was only too well aware of the fact. Merely to rise and walk across a room cost him more effort than summoning an army of wyrsa had when he was at his full powers. And as for working magic -
At the moment, it was simply not possible.
How long had he hovered in that timeless Void? He did not know; it was more than mere days, more like weeks or even months. He had been snatched from that dark and formless space before he had gone quite mad, and he had drained his magical power just to keep his physical body barely alive. Now both were damnably slow to return to him. He had become used to recovering swiftly, taking the lives of his servants to augment his own failed powers. That was not an option open to him at the moment, and his recovery was correspondingly slow.
In fact, even as he lay in his soft, warm cradle, he knew that it was weakness that kept him here rather than his own will. It would be very hard to rise and force his body into some limited form of exercise; very easy to drift from feigned into real sleep. And very attractive as well, for sleep held far more pleasant prospects than reality.
Sleep - where he would forget where he was and the bonds that had been placed upon him, the coercions that now ruled his mind and powers. Where he would forget that it was a mere stripling of a usurping King that he must call "Master."
He had learned his captor had given him his real name quite by accident, during one of those bouts of pretended sleep. The annoying hedge-wizard who played host to him had entered with the servant that had brought him food, and had ordered the frightened man to wake Falconsbane and see that he ate and drank. The servant had objected, clearly thinking Falconsbane some kind of wild beast, half man and half monster, fearing - he little knew how rightly - that Falconsbane might kill him if he ventured too near. The wizard had cuffed his underling, growling that "the King wants him well and what Ancar will do to both of us if he is not is worse than anything this creature ever could do to you!"
At the time, Falconsbane had come very close to betraying his pretense by laughing. Clearly, this foolish magician had no idea who and what he was entertaining!
And if he had? Likely he would have fled the country in terror, not trusting to anything but distance to bring him out of Falconsbane's reach. The silly fool; even that would not help him if Mornelithe became upset with him.
He still had no real idea why it was that Ancar had placed him under magical coercions - other than the obvious, that the upstart wanted an Adept under his control. Why he wanted and needed an Adept - what purposes he wanted that Adept to serve - that was still a mystery. But at least, after listening covertly to the conversations between the sniveling hedge-wizard and his Master, he now knew how Ancar had brought him here.
By accident. Purely and simply, by accident and blundering.
The thought that he, Mornelithe Falconsbane, Adept of power that puny young Ancar could only dream of, had been "rescued" entirely by a mistake was enough to make him wild with rage - or hysterical with laughter. It was impossible. It was a thing so absurd that it never should have happened. No mage of any learning would have ever given credit to such a story.
It was logical, when analyzed. The backlash of power when his focus had been smashed, his web of power-lines snapped back on him, and the proto-Gate had been released from his control had sent Falconsbane into the Void. No ordinary Gate could have fetched him back out again, for ordinary Gates were carefully constructed, and the terminus chosen, long before the Gate energy was set in motion. No Gate could be set on the Void itself; to attempt such a folly would be to court absolute disaster as the Gate turned back on itself and its creator and devoured both. But Ancar had not created an ordinary Gate; he had not been creating a Gate at all, so far as he knew. He had thought then - and still thought now - that he had been constructing some safe way for a lesser mage to handle the terrible powers of node-energies, energies only an Adept could safely master. Ancar did not have Adept potential, for all his pretensions; Master was the most the whelp could ever aspire to. But whoever his teacher was, that teacher had evidently chosen not to inform him of this, and he had been searching for a way to make himself an Adept for some time now.
His collections of spellbook fragments must be quite impressive - and the fact that he was willing to risk himself using only fragments proved either that he was very brave, or very stupid.
The directions for the Gate had come from one of those fragments, one that had not included the purpose of the spell he had decided to try. As a result of incomplete directions and the utter folly of following them, he had set up a Gate with no terminus. But at the time, at the back of his mind, he had been concentrating on something he wanted very much.
An Adept. If he could not be one, then he wanted one. Actually, he had probably hoped for both, to become an Adept and to control one, or more than one. A suicidally stupid plan, one that Falconsbane would never have tried. Dark Adepts, the only kind Ancar would be likely to attract, were jealous of their powers, unwilling to share them, and would never stop testing any bonds that were put upon them. And when those bonds broke -
- as eventually, Falconsbane would break his -
- then revenge would be swift and certain.
Falconsbane had known of some of Ancar's activities from his spies; he had been interested in the young King purely because the boy was the enemy of those blasted allies of k'Sheyna, the ones with the white horses. He had briefly toyed with the notion of an alliance himself - with him as the superior, of course. He knew that Ancar had longed for Adepts for some time, and it was logical to assume that he had been concentrating on the need for an Adept at the time the Gate began to fold back in on itself.
Falconsbane knew everything there was to know about Gates, except the few secrets that had disappeared with the Mage of Silence. Oh, him again. He could make some deductions now, with the information that he had gleaned from his covert listening, that were probably correct. The energies making up Gates were remarkably responsive to wants, as Falconsbane had every reason to know now. Especially when those wants were triggered by fear as the Gate began to reach for its creator.
Ancar wanted an Adept, and no doubt wanted one very badly when his spell went awry; as it happened, the Void had one. Falconsbane, still caught in nothingness.
And once the Gate had a goal, it "knew" how to reach that goal, given the strength of Ancar's need.
So, taking Ancar's desire as destination, the Gate had stopped folding back upon itself, and had reached out to bring Ancar what he wanted.
Falconsbane wondered, as he had wondered before this, what would have happened if the Void had not contained what Ancar had wanted. Possibly the Gate would have completed its attempt to double back, and would have destroyed itself and its creator with it. Well, that would have been entertaining to watch, but it wouldn't have saved Falconsbane.
Possibly Ancar would have thought of some place he considered safe, and it would have read that as a destination, creating the terminus and thus showing Ancar what it was he had truly called into being. It was impossible to say, really, and hard thinking made Mornelithe's head hurt.
Ancar's first Gate had collapsed for lack of further energy. And Ancar still was not aware of what he had created.
Falconsbane had no intention of telling him. He intended to keep as many secrets as he could, given the coercive spells that Ancar had layered on him. He was aided by the fact that Ancar was not aware how much Hardornen Falconsbane knew, or that he had a limited ability to read the unguarded thoughts of the servants to increase his vocabulary. As long as he pretended not to understand, it should be possible to keep quite a bit from Ancar.
He stirred restlessly, clenching his jaw in anger. When he had awakened to himself, he had found himself constrained by so many coercive and controlling spells that he could hardly breathe without permission. And for the first time in a very, very long time, Mornelithe Falconsbane found himself trapped and moving only to another's will.
It was not a situation calculated to make him cooperate with his captor and "rescuer." Not that anything would be, really. Falconsbane was not used to cooperating.
Falconsbane was used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Anything less was infuriating.
In his weakened and currently rather confused state, he often lost track of things. At the moment, he was fairly lucid, but he knew that this condition was only temporary. At any moment, he could slip back into dreams and semiconsciousness.
So while he was in brief control of himself, he laid his own set of coercions on his mind, coercions that would negate the effect of any drugs or momentary weaknesses. He would not answer anything except the most direct of questions, and he would answer those as literally and shortly as possible. If asked if he knew who he was, for instance, he would answer "Yes," and nothing more. If asked if he knew what spell had brought him here, he would also answer "Yes," with no elaboration. If Ancar wanted information, he would have to extract it, bit by painful bit. And Falconsbane would do his best to confuse the issue, by deliberate misunderstandings.
It would be an exercise in patience, to say the least, to learn anything at all of value.
Let Ancar wear himself out. Meanwhile, Falconsbane would be studying him, his spells, and his situation. Let Ancar continue to believe that he was the Master here. Falconsbane would learn to use Ancar even as Ancar thought he was using Falconsbane. He would not remain this fool's captive for long.
Falconsbane had forgotten more about coercion than this piddling puppy King had learned in his lifetime! It would only take time to undo what had been done, or to work his way around what Ancar had hedged him in with. Falconsbane knew above all that any spell created could be broken, circumvented, or twisted.
Even his own, he remembered with some bitterness.
True unconsciousness rose to take him under a blanket of darkness, even as that last sordid thought cut through his mind.
As Falconsbane drifted from pretended slumber into real sleep, An'desha shena Jor'ethan watched from his own starry corner of the Adept's mind.
When Falconsbane's thoughts clouded and drifted into dreams, An'desha opened his shared eyes cautiously, alert to the possibility that such an action might wake Falconsbane again.
But Falconsbane remained asleep, and An'desha reveled in the feeling that his body was his own again - however temporarily that might be. Once Falconsbane woke, he would have to retreat back into the little hidden corner of his mind that Falconsbane did not control, and did not even seem to be aware of. Even his ability to view the world through Falconsbane's senses was limited to the times when the Adept was very preoccupied, or seriously distracted. Any time there was even the slightest possibility that Falconsbane could sense An'desha's presence, An'desha kept himself hidden in the "dark."
He was not certain why he was still "here." The little he had read in Falconsbane's memories indicated that whenever the Adept took over one of his descendants' bodies, he utterly destroyed the personality, and possibly even the soul, of that descendant. Yet - this time both had remained. An'desha was still "alive," if in a severely limited sense, thanks only to his instincts.
Not that I can do much, he thought with more than a little fear. And if he ever finds out that I'm still here, he'll squash me like a troublesome insect. He may think he's too weak to do anything, but even now he could destroy me if he wanted to. He 'd probably do it just to sharpen his appetite.
If I'd accepted becoming a shaman...none of this would have happened. There wouldn't even be a Mornelithe Falconsbane, if I hadn't tried to call fire. If only.
If only...easy to say, in retrospect. Half Shin'a'in as he was, would the Plains shaman have even accepted him? There was no telling; the shaman might just as easily have sent him away. Shin'a'in shaman did not practice magic as such - but did they have anything like the fire-calling spell? And if they did, would it have been similar enough to bring Mornelithe out of his limbo? And if it had been - what would have happened then?
If, if, if. Too many "ifs," and none of them of any use.
The past was immutable, the present what it was because of the past. An'desha had been gifted with mage-power. He had chosen to run away to try to find the Tale'edras and master that magic, rather than become a shaman as the custom of Shin'a'in dictated. He had become lost, and he had tried to call fire to warm himself the first night he had been on his own. That had been his undoing.
An'desha was a blood-descendant of an Adept called Zendak, who had in turn been the blood-descendant of another and another, tracing their lineage all the way back to the time of the Mage Wars and an Adept called Ma'ar. That Adept had learned a terrible secret; how to defy death by hiding his disembodied self at the moment of his body's death in a pocket of one of the Nether Plains. And Ma'ar had set a trap for every blood-descendant of Adept potential, using the simple fire-spell as the trigger of that trap. A fledgling mage shouldn't know much more than that fire-spell, and so wouldn't be able to effectively defend against the marauder stealing his body.
An'desha, all unknowing and innocent, had called fire. Mornelithe Falconsbane had swarmed up out of his self-imposed limbo to shred An'desha's mind.
But this time, the theft had not taken place completely. An'desha had studied what being a Shin'a'in shaman entailed, and was familiar with some of the ways to control one's own mind. He fled before the Adept's power into a tiny space in his own mind, and had barricaded and camouflaged against the invader. And Falconsbane was completely unaware of that fact.
Sometimes I wish he had gotten rid of me...how can I still be sane? Maybe I'm not...
An'desha had been an unwitting and terrified spectator to far too many of Falconsbane's atrocities - appalled at what was happening, and helpless to do anything about what was being done. And he knew, from stolen glimpses into Falconsbane's thoughts, that the little he had been witness to was only the smallest part of what Falconsbane had done to his victims. His existence had all the qualities of the worst nightmare that anyone could imagine, and more than once he had been tempted to reveal himself, just to end the torment.
But something had always kept him from betraying himself; some hope, however faint, that one day he might, possibly, be able to get his own body back and drive out the interloper. He never gave up on that hope, not even when Falconsbane had changed that body into something An'desha no longer recognized as his.
He had welcomed the embrace of the Void, at least as an end to the madness. He had no more expected release from the Void than Falconsbane had.
He had not been as weakened or as confused as his usurper when that release came, but caution made him very wary of trusting anyone with his secret. He had remained silent and hidden, and that, perhaps, is what had saved him.
The coercions on Falconsbane had not taken hold of him, and he had come through the ordeal in far better shape than Falconsbane had. And to his surprise and tentative pleasure, he had discovered that the damage done to Falconsbane had permitted him some measure of control again - always provided that he did not try to control something while Falconsbane was using it.
Falconsbane did not seem any more aware of An'desha's presence than he had been before, not even when An'desha, greatly daring, had taken over the body, making it sit up, eat, and even walk, while Falconsbane was "asleep."
What all this meant, An'desha did not dare to speculate.
But there had been other signs to make him hope, signs and even oblique messages, during the time that Falconsbane had waged war on the Tale'edras.
The Black Riders. He had known who and what those mysterious entities were, even though Falconsbane had not. When they had appeared, he had nearly been beside himself with excitement. They were as much a message to him - or so he hoped - as they were a distraction to Falconsbane.
And there had even been an earlier sign, at Falconsbane's battle and subsequent escape from the ruins where the gryphons laired. He knew why the Kal'enedral had failed to slay Falconsbane, even if no one else did. They had not missed their mark - nor had they been concerned with sparing the Adept. Their later actions, in the guise of Black Riders, luring Falconsbane into thinking that he was being "courted" by another Adept, only confirmed that.
They - or rather, She, the Star-Eyed, the Warrior - knew that An'desha was still "alive." She would; very little was lost to the deity of both the Tale'edras and the Shin'a'in, so long as it occurred either on the Plains or in the Pelagirs. When the Black Riders sent the tiny horse and the ring to Falconsbane, An'desha was certain that they were also sending a message to him. The black horse meant that he had not been forgotten, either by his Goddess or by Her Swordsworn. The ring was to remind him that life is a cycle - and the cycle might bring him a chance to get his body and his life back again.
The question was, now that he was far from the lands that he had known, could they act this far from the Plains? The Goddess was not known for being able to do much far from the borders of Her own lands. She had limited Her own power, of Her own will, at the beginning of time - as all the Powers had chosen to do, to keep the world from becoming a battleground of conflicting deities. She would not break Her own rules.
And yet...and yet...
She was clever; She could work around the rules without breaking them. If She chose.
If he proved that he was worthy. That was the other thing to keep in mind; She only helped those who had done their part, who had gone to the end of their own abilities, and had no other recourse. If he were to be worthy of Her help, it was up to him to do everything in his power, without waiting for the Star-Eyed to come rescue him.
He would, above all, have to be very, very careful. Just because Falconsbane was damaged now, it did not do to think he would continue to be at a disadvantage. If there was one thing An'desha had learned from watching the Adept, it was this; never underestimate Mornelithe Falconsbane - and always be, not doubly, but triply careful whenever doing anything around him.
But - he dared, just for a moment, to send a whisper of prayer into the darkness of the chamber. To Her.
Remember me - and help me, if You will -
Then the sound of footsteps outside the chamber door made him flee back into his hiding place, before Falconsbane was awakened, or woke on his own.
He reached that safety, just as the door opened, and Falconsbane stirred up out of the depths of sleep.
The sound of his door opening and closing roused him from slumber. Falconsbane opened his eyes a mere slit.
It was enough to betray him to his observer.
"I see you are awake." The smooth young voice identified the speaker at once, even before Ancar moved into the faint light cast by a shadowed lantern near the bed. "I hope you are enjoying my hospitality."
Falconsbane refused to allow himself to show any emotion. He simply studied his captor, committing every nuance of expression to memory. Falconsbane knew well the value of every scrap of information, and the more he knew about Ancar of Hardorn, the sooner he would be able to defeat the boy.
He was a handsome young man, showing few signs of the dissipation that Falconsbane suspected. But if he had achieved the position of Master, he surely knew all the tricks by which a mage could delay the onset of aging, strengthen the body, and even make it more comely. Only an Adept could actually change the body, as Falconsbane had done with both his own form and that of others. But a Master could hold his own body in youth for a very long time, if he had sufficient energies. Life-energies would serve the best, the life-energies of others. One could steal years, decades, from other lives and add them to one's own. Or one could steal the entire remaining life-span. Easily done; very tempting and a very useful skill to learn. For Mornelithe, in days long ago, it had approached being a hobby.
Ancar of Hardorn was certainly a young man that women would find attractive; his straight, black hair was thick and luxuriant, his mustache and beard well-groomed. Neither hid the sensual mouth, a mouth that smiled easily, if falsely. The square face was pleasantly sculptured, the dark eyes neither piggishly small nor bovinely large. But the eyes did give him away, for they were flat, expressionless, and dead. The eyes of someone who sees others only as objects - as things to use, destroy, or ignore. A more experienced man would have learned how even to manipulate the expressions of his eyes, as Falconsbane had. Mornelithe fancied that he could convince anyone of anything, if he chose to. He was certainly convincing this Ancar that his "Master" had him cowed and under control.
Falconsbane considered his answer carefully before making it. How much to reveal? If he seemed too submissive, Ancar might suspect something. A mere touch of defiance, perhaps. A faint hint of rebellion. "I cannot say that 'enjoy' is the term I would use."
Ancar laughed, although there was no humor in the sound. "I see you have regained some of your wits at last. Good. I will ask you some questions that have puzzled me."
Since that was not a direct question, Falconsbane made no answering comment. Ancar waited for a moment, then said sharply, "What is your true name? And where do you come from?"
The coercions tightened about his mind, forcing answers from him, but he made them as literal as he could. "Mornelithe Falconsbane. I came from the Void, where you found me."
That last was enough to confuse him. Falconsbane preferred that Ancar not learn his true place of origin. Not yet, at least.
Ancar's brow furrowed as he considered this. "Are you an Adept?" he asked at last. "Are you a demon?"
"Yes," Falconsbane replied quickly. "No."
"But you are not human - " Ancar persisted, but since it was not a question, nothing compelled Falconsbane to answer, and Ancar glared at him in frustration. Falcons-bane kept his own expression bland and smooth.
"Do you know who I am?" Ancar asked at last - then, finally realizing what game Falconsbane was playing, changed his question to an order, backed by the coercive spells. "Tell me what you know of me!" he demanded.
Mentally cursing, Falconsbane did as he was told. That Ancar was a ruler and a mage, and that his enemies were the Outlanders who rode white horses as a kind of badge. That the king was the one who had cast the spell that had brought Falconsbane out of the Void, and had cast coercive spells to make Falconsbane his captive. Ancar listened to the little that Falconsbane could tell him, then stroked his beard for a moment in thought.
"I am going to give you some information I wish you to think about," he said at last, "because I am certain that once you are aware of who and what you are dealing with, you will be disposed to cooperate. I am Ancar, King of Hardorn, and the most powerful mage in this kingdom. I am, as you surmised, the enemy of those you called 'Outlanders,' the folk of Valdemar who ride those white witch-horses you described. They are known as 'Heralds,' and they possess a certain mastery of mind-magic. I intend to conquer them, and to that end, I require the abilities of an Adept, for their Kingdom has protection against true magic. Not only does it not operate within their border, but mages who attempt to cross that border are driven mad within a short time of trying to exercise their powers. So, you are both useful and necessary to me - but not so necessary that I cannot do without you. Keep that in mind."
He smiled, and Falconsbane refrained from snarling. The boy's rhetoric was incredibly heavy-handed. How he had managed to keep himself on his throne, Falconsbane could not imagine. Luck, the help of someone more skilled than he was, or both.
"Now," Ancar continued silkily, "I have every intention of seeing that you are brought to your full health. If you cooperate fully with me, I shall be certain that you are rewarded. If you do not - I shall force your cooperation, and dispose of you when I no longer need you. The situation is just that simple."
He did not wait for an answer this time, but simply turned and left, and Falconsbane felt mage-locks clicking into place behind him.
Slowly, Falconsbane pushed himself into a sitting position, his anger giving him more energy to move than he had thought he possessed. There was food and drink on the table beside the bed; Falconsbane helped himself to both while he still had the strength to do so, and then, when his head began to swim a little, lowered himself back down again.
But although he was prone, his mind continued to work. Ancar had revealed more than he had known, for although he was wearing a mage-constructed shield protecting his thoughts, his expression was perfectly open, and his body had revealed things his words had not.
His hold upon his throne was by no means as secure as he would like Falconsbane to think. There was someone else in the picture - another mage, Falconsbane guessed - who kept the boy in power. That was why Ancar needed Falconsbane. Oh, it was true enough that he also needed an Adept to help defeat these "Heralds" as he had claimed; his body had proclaimed that much also to be true. But his hidden agenda was to rid himself of this other person's influence, if not, indeed, the person.
Now that had a great deal of potential, so far as Falconsbane was concerned. Perhaps when Ancar had first mounted the throne, his people would only have accepted a ruler of the proper lineage. But by now, Falconsbane suspected that Ancar had been foolish enough to mistreat his people very badly indeed. There was only so much mistreatment that a populace would put up with, and after that, they would welcome any ruler marginally better than the current despot.
Perhaps this other mage had already calculated precisely that. Perhaps not. It would certainly enter into Falconsbane's calculations.
He would play along with Ancar - perhaps continue to feign weakness, perhaps simply feign complete cooperation. He would work at the coercions until they were no longer a hindrance. Then, when the time was right - Falconsbane would turn the tables on the arrogant brat.
Then this kingdom would be in Falconsbane's hands. That would give him a new base of operations from which to work. He could then discover exactly how far from home he was - and determine if he actually wanted to return home. It might not be worthwhile. After all, one thing he lacked was a decent population base. Such things made real, human armies possible. Add human armies to the armies of his mage-born creatures, and he might well prove to be the most powerful ruler this area had ever seen.
Those Outlanders whose interference had so undone his own plans were almost certainly on their way home. And now he knew where that home was. So by furthering Ancar's plans, he would be furthering his own revenge. Then, when he was the one in control, he would be able to exact a more complete form of vengeance.
Vengeance again; how it comforted him! It was simple and elegant, however messy or convoluted its execution might be. As it had so many times before, vengeance would pull him through troubles - no, inconveniences - like a bright lantern seen through stormy darkness.
Taking their land would be a good start. Finding the girl and the man would complete that particular facet of his revenge.
And from there, with two lands under his control....
Well, it would be much easier to attack the Bird Lovers with a conventional army at his call. They were not prepared for such things. He could take them with little personal effort.
After that -
After that, he might well think about all the blighted ambitions of Leareth and Ma'ar. All the plans he had laid that could actually be brought to fruition. He could become more than a mere "king" - even more than an Emperor. He could have the world calling him Lord and Master.
He closed his eyes, picturing himself as Master of the World, and drifted again into pleasant dreams.
An'desha emerged from hiding as soon as Falconsbane was truly asleep again. This time, although he took care not to move Falconsbane's body, he took a few moments to get some idea of his surroundings.
He was in what seemed to be a very luxurious bedroom. The bed itself was canopied, with heavy curtains that were now pulled back and held against the posts of the bed with straps of fabric. There was a fireplace, although there was no fire burning at the moment. Beside the bed was a table with the remains of Falconsbane's meal still on it. Shadows against the wall hinted at more furniture, but the light from the two heavily-shaded lamps beside the bed was not enough for An'desha to make out what kind of furnishings were there.
So much for the physical aspects of the room. As for the nonphysical -
He paused for a moment, then used the Mage-Sight that had become second nature over the years of Mornelithe's dominance.
The door is mage-locked. There are protections on the bed and wards and shields everywhere - baffles and misdirectors. Ancar doesn't want anyone to know that he has a mage in this room.
An'desha hesitated for a moment, trying to decide if he should probe those protections further, or try to investigate the locks on the door.
An odd stirring in the energies surrounding the room alarmed him. Something was coming!
He readied to bolt back into hiding again, when the gentle touch of a thread of Mindspeech touched his mind. His - and not Falconsbane's! Was this the madness he had feared? Was his remaining consciousness having fever-dreams of its own now?
:Do not fear, An'desha. We are here to help you.:
He paused in frozen amazement, too shocked at hearing his own name to even think of what to do next. It was the kind of wish fulfillment he had always mistrusted, but it seemed real. Would madness seem so real? Would a madman know?
A sparkling energy coalesced in the room, then formed a rotating center and swirled around it. A column of twisting, glowing mist formed in the center of the room, spreading two wide wings, raising a head -
The image of a ghostly vorcel-hawk, many times life size and made of glowing amber mist, mantled its wings and stared at him for a moment.
A vorcel-hawk - Her hawk! This was no trick. Falconsbane knew nothing of Her creatures, nor would the foreigner Ancar have any notion of what a vorcel-hawk meant to a Shin'a'in!
The Hawk gazed at him with star-flecked eyes for three heartbeats. Then it pulled in its wings and became a mist-cloud; the mist swirled again, split into two masses, and began taking shape for a second time.
Not one hawk, but two stared at him, one larger than the other -
Then the hawks folded their wings and the mist clouded; not two hawks, but two people stood there. One, a woman, so faint and tenuous that An'desha could see nothing clearly but her eyes and the vague woman-shape of her. But the other was male.
The other was a man of the Shin'a'in.
He very nearly cried out - but the man motioned him to be silent, and with many years of control and caution behind him, he obeyed instantly. He took a tight rein on his elation and his confusion as well, lest they wake Falconsbane out of slumber. Whoever, whatever these were, they could only be here to help him - but they could not help him if Falconsbane learned of his existence.
:I am Tre'valen shena Tale'sedrin, An'desha,: the spirit-man said in his mind :We have been sent to help you as much as we can - but I must warn you, although we come at the order of the Star-Eyed, we are far from our forests and plains. Both we and She are limited in what we can do. She is bound by rules even as we are.:
There was a little disappointment at learning they would not simply invoke a power and banish Falconsbane, but far more simple relief. He was not alone at least, he had not been forgotten! He nearly wept with the intensity of his emotion.
But like lightning, his relief turned to bewilderment. What, exactly, was this Tre'valen? He didn't look anything like one of the Swordsworn...could he be spirit-traveling in some way, and was his real body somewhere nearby? If An'desha had a real, physical ally somewhere, it would be more than he had hoped for. A physical ally could free him from Ancar. But on the other hand, wouldn't someone who was leshy'a be better suited to free him from Falconsbane?
:What are you?: he asked timidly :Are you a spirit?:
Tre'valen smiled ruefully :I am not precisely a spirit-but I am not precisely "alive," either. I was, and am still, a shaman of Tale'sedrin. I do not believe that the term "Avatar" would mean anything to you - :
An'desha dared not shake his head, but evidently Tre'valen "read" the intention.
:We are "Avatars," for what that is worth. We serve Her a little more directly than the Kal'enedral do. We go where She cannot and where the Kal'enedral are unsuited. As now, when a shaman is needed, and not a warrior :
A shaman? He couldn't help himself; he had gotten into this mess by trying to escape the shaman. He shrank back a little, both afraid of Tre'valen's censure, and ashamed. Surely, since She knew so much, She knew of his foolish attempt to flee, and her - Avatar - knew it, too.
Tre'valen sensed his shame, and Sent him a feeling of reassurance :An'desha, you need not fear me because of your past. Would She have sent us to you if She thought you deserved punishment? Would She punish you because you chose to flee instead of being forced into a role you didn't want?:
A good point. He breathed a little easier.
:And think on it, An'desha. She takes no one who is not willing - Kal'enedral or shaman. She also punishes only those who have betrayed that which they promised. Why should She be angered at you because you were not willing?:
Now he felt twice as stupid. All this could have been avoided if only he had thought before he acted.
Tre'valen shook his head :An'desha, I learned to think long before I acted - and when I was young, that broody thoughtfulness became inactivity. I was shocked out of it in my own way, even as you have been shocked. I became what I am now because of a moment when I did not have time to consider hundreds of options. I believe the choice I made was the right one. And perhaps, so was yours.:
Now he was confused. And what on earth did Tre'valen mean by saying that he was not precisely a spirit, but not precisely alive?
Oh, it didn't matter. What mattered was that he had been forgiven. Tre'valen seemed to be able to follow that thought, for he nodded.
:You were not thinking, An'desha, to run off like that. A better choice would have been to go to another shaman, one of some other Clan, who would have been more objective about you and your life-path. But you were also very young, and being young and stupid is not supposed to open one up to consequences quite as serious as you suffered. We all learn. That is why we live.:Tre'valen smiled a little and the woman-form behind him took on more substance. And to An'desha's surprise, it was not one of the Kal'enedral as he had suspected it might be, nor was it even another Shin'a'in. Instead, the woman matched all the descriptions of the Tale'edras that he had ever heard! She was very beautiful, and it was clear to An'desha that these two were bound by more than similarity of form and purpose.
:This is Dawnfire,: Tre'valen said, confirming his guess by giving the woman a Hawkbrother name :She and I are your friends and your helpers. You know what you want most - :
:My body!: he cried involuntarily :My freedom!:
:We can free you of your body - permanently, but I suspect that is not your first choice,: Dawnfire replied wryly.
No. For all that he had wished for oblivion and death before, he truly did not want it now.
:In that case, you will have to earn your body and your freedom,: Tre'valen told him. The mist-forms glowed, like dust in a sunbeam, sparkling and dancing :And even if you do all that we ask, there is no guarantee that we can grant what you want. We will do our best, but we are very limited in power. There are many other forces at work here.:
But it was a chance; it was more than he had ever had before. Even a chance was worth fighting for, and especially a chance for freedom.
Both of the spirits nodded encouragingly :An'desha, what we want from you is relatively simple. Watch. Listen. Learn. And tell us all that you have learned.:Tre'valen's mind-voice was earnest :This will not be easy, because we will be asking you to do more than simply observe what happens. We will be showing you how to see into Falconsbane's thoughts and memories without him being aware that you are doing so. As you have been, brave one, when Falconsbane is fully aware, you are in limbo. We will show you how to protect yourself so that you are part of everything he thinks and does. Eventually, you will be an unseen witness to what goes on within him and outside of him. Eventually, you will invade his memories and learn the answers to questions we shall ask in the future:
An'desha writhed with indecision and discomfort for a moment. He had not liked the little he had seen; he knew very well that Falconsbane had done horrible things, much more horrible than An'desha had ever been aware of. As Mornelithe had become more intent on his depravities, An'desha had been pushed back into limbo. He had awakened to the aftermath when Mornelithe came down from his twisted pleasure. Could he bear to see and know these things that had been done with his body?
:You will not like any of what you find,: Dawnfire warned soberly :Falconsbane is a monster in every sense. What you discover for us will bring you pain. But these are things that we must know in order to help you. And - to help others; those Falconsbane would harm.:
In that case - if they meant to stop Falconsbane from hurting anyone else - how could he refuse? How many times had he prayed for a way to stop the madness that he had seen? How many times had he cursed his inability to save even one creature from Falconsbane's evil? The old Shin'a'in proverb of "Beware what you ask for, lest you receive it" seemed particularly apt....
Wordlessly - even though he was full of fear, and already shrinking from what he knew he would find - he gave his assent.
By the time they left him, they had shown him as much as he could encompass in a single lesson. They had coached him through making his little corner of Falconsbane's mind more secure, and even more invisible to the Adept. They had taught him how to gain access to Falconsbane's memory without the Adept being aware that he was doing so. They had shown him how to extend his reach into areas of Falconsbane's waking mind, so that now he would be able to see and hear whatever Falconsbane did, and to read the Adept's waking thoughts at all times, and not just when Falconsbane was extremely preoccupied. And they had gently praised him, something he had not experienced in what felt like eons. He quivered at how it made him feel.
When they took wing into the night, he withdrew again, buttressed up the walls of his defenses, and assimilated everything they had taught him. As Falconsbane continued to sleep, he made his first overt move. He sent the Adept into deeper slumber.
Falconsbane descended into a sleep so deep that not even an army marching by would have awakened him. It would not last for long, but it was the first time that An'desha had dared do anything directly against the Adept.
Encouraged by his success, he thought for a moment.
He did things to my body; I know he did. More things than just changing the way it looks - and I don't even know how far he went with that. I ought to find out.
And the memories of how Falconsbane had done those things were likely to be some of the least noxious.
That would be a good place to start, then.
He settled down, made his own thoughts very quiet, and began his work.
Elspeth stared at the enormous conifers surrounding them. Their trunks and branches were not "enormous" by Tayledras standards, but they were huge when compared to the trees around Haven.
If the air had not been so cool, she would have thought they had been transported into a miniature Vale, or part of a larger one. They stood in a pocket-valley, with the cave that had formed the terminus of the Gate behind them, a small, grassy meadow in front of them, and those huge trees climbing up the steep slopes to either side of them. Any place where sunlight might penetrate the canopy, there were bushes and other low-growing plants clustered thickly about the bases of the trees. And yet, the meadow here had nothing taller than a few weeds, and while it was not exactly symmetrical, it still felt artificial - arranged somehow. There were no exotic flowering plants, and no signs of a Veil or other protections. But for all of that, it still reminded her strongly of a Hawkbrother stronghold. There was something about the placement of the trees that gave her the sense that this place had been touched by the hand of man.
Could trees grow that tall without something nurturing them? She didn't think so...but then she was not exactly an expert. Hadn't Darkwind once told her that the trees in the Pelagiris Forest were this tall?
Could they somehow have come out into an old Vale, one abandoned long ago? How did they get here instead of k'Treva? Certainly Firesong did not seem to recognize this place either. If he had targeted an old Vale by mistake, wouldn't he know it? Wouldn't he recognize it, if it was an old k'Treva Vale?
The group moved so their backs faced each other, with the gryphlets in the middle of the circle. Darkwind and Skif had dropped all burdens but their weapons, and Vree was already ranging up onto station to scout. Firesong stood with the most perplexed expression Elspeth had ever seen, one hand to his scalp, pulling his white hair back.
"I have no clue how we got here!" he cried, and received a gesture to be quieter from Darkwind, Skif, and Nyara.
A bird called off in the distance somewhere. It sounded like a wood thrush. There weren't any wood thrushes around k' Sheyna, at least not that she had ever heard. She had always thought they were a northern bird...were there other birds that sounded like wood thrushes? Scarlet jays mimicked other birds, so perhaps it was a jay. But would a jay mimic a bird that didn't live in the same region?
"We are definitely far north. I think we can calm down, though - if we were meant to be killed, it would have been done as we exited the Gate. Still," Firesong continued, "this seriously annoys me."
Something about the light shining down into the center of the clearing was unusual. Its color - and the angle at which it fell.
Light in the center of the clearing? But the sun isn't high enough - it's early morning - there can't be a shaft of light in the middle of the clearing!
But there was - only it wasn't a shaft of light coming down through the treetops, but a column of light, taller than a man. Silver-gold light, the kind of light that shines over snow on a winter morning. Everything developed odd double shadows as the light became brighter still.
A ripple in the energies of the place made her redouble her shields quickly, and join them with Darkwind's, in a move that was near-instinctive now. Gods only knew what this thing was, but it surely had something to do with whatever snatched them away from k'Treva.
A vague shape developed, a sculpture of fog - except that it was glowing, and the energies of this place were definitely centered around it. Now that she knew what to look for, the lines of force were as clear as ripples in a pond. This - thing - was a part of the forest - of the energies that lay under the forest.
But it was still changing; it blurred, or perhaps her eyes blurred for a moment. And then, the figure solidified. It was not at all what she had expected.
It was a handsome man, silver-haired, silver-eyed, handsome enough even to cast Firesong into the shade, of no determinate age.
And he was dressed in an antique version of Herald's Whites. He looked like a glowing statue of milky glass, or like -
Oh, gods. Like a ghost, a spirit....
The hair on the back of her neck rose with atavistic fear, and she backed up another pace, holding out one hand as if to ward the thing off.
As if she could! This was not the first spirit she had encountered, but how could she know what this spirit could do? How could she hope to hold it off if it chose to attack her?
A crisp, clean breeze rose and fell. It sounded like the forest was sighing.
:Bright Havens!: said a cheerful, gentle voice in her head :You all look as if you'd seen a ghost!:
A quick glance showed her that everyone else had heard that mind-voice as well. Darkwind looked startled; the gryphons were mantling and the little ones hid under their wings. Skif was white - and round-eyed with astonishment, for he was not a strong Mindspeaker, and it would take a powerful Mindspeaker indeed to make him Hear. Nyara simply looked frightened and puzzled. The Companions - there was no reading them. They stood as stock still as if they had been carved of snow.
Firesong was as pale as his hair - or the apparition. This was the first time that Elspeth had ever seen the Hawkbrother truly frightened. She'd seen him worried, yes. Anxious and even apprehensive. But never frightened.
Still, it was Firesong who recovered first. He regained a little more color, drew himself erect, and approached the - man.
The apparition simply smiled. For a revenant, this one was remarkably good-natured. Weren't ghosts supposed to rattle chains and moan curses or warnings? But she had never heard of a Herald coming back to haunt anyone before.
"And have we not?" Firesong asked, stopping within touching distance of the spirit and looking challengingly into its "face." "Have we not seen a ghost, Forefather?"
Forefather? "Firesong, what are you talking about?" Elspeth asked in a whisper, as if she really thought the thing wouldn't hear her if she kept her voice down.
Firesong's voice shook, and he was clearly having a hard time keeping it steady. "Don't you recognize him, Elspeth?" he asked tremulously. "Have you never seen those features before? Are there no portraits in your home in Valdemar of your ancestor and mine?"
The spirit folded his arms over his chest. It looked, perversely, as if he was enjoying this. It was hard to feel frightened of someone who had that kind of mischievous twinkle in his eyes - or whatever passed for eyes.
"My ancestor?" she repeated, feeling remarkably stupid. "I mean, it looks like he's wearing old Herald's Whites, but I don't - I mean, there isn't anyone in the royal family who looks like - there's no one in the Royal Gallery who - "
Firesong regained a little more color. "Elspeth, have you no eyes in your head?" he asked, in a much steadier - and rather impatient - tone. "Look at him. Look at me! This is Vanyel. Your great-great-many-times-great grandfather, and mine. Herald Vanyel. The last Herald-Mage, Elspeth. Ally of the Clans."
Her mouth dropped open. The apparition winked broadly :Very good, Firesong,: he said.
:Close your mouth, granddaughter,: said a voice she knew was only in her mind this time :You look very pretty, but not overly bright that way. There is no Veil to hold insects out; something might fly right down your throat.:
She snapped her mouth shut and blushed in confusion.
She was not the only one with a reaction to the identification. "If that is Vanyel," Skif said, and gulped, "then this must be - the Forest of Sorrows!"
She knew even as he said it that Skif was right. But how? How had they gotten here? Skif might well gulp, for she had thought there was a reasonable limit on how far one could Gate - and this was well beyond that limit. As nearly as she could reckon, they were more than the length of Valdemar off-course, and none of them had ever been up here before, not even Skif.
This was insane. Or else, she had gone insane. Or it was a dream -
:It's not a dream,: Gwena said, lipping her to prove it.
:No, it's not a dream,: the spirit said, still smiling :And you haven't all gone mad. This is Sorrows and I am Vanyel Ashkevron. I am still in the service of the Goddess and Valdemar. I brought you here.:
She could only blink. If this was Vanyel - no, who else could it be? It must be. If her mage-senses weren't supporting his claims, she would have thought he was just someone playing a trick on all of them. "Ah, I'm sorry, but - I've never seen a ghost before - I - " she stammered in confusion.
Firesong continued to stare at the spirit, but there was a certain expression of growing accusation on his face. And well there might be, since this ghostly Vanyel had just run roughshod over their plans with this little excursion.
Elspeth tried to shake her thoughts loose. If this was Vanyel, then this was the spirit of one of the most pivotal Heralds of all time. His death had ended the age of Herald-Mages. And if her researches in the Archives were correct, he was also personally responsible for the fact that it was impossible for magic to be performed or even thought of inside the borders of Valdemar. She had a million questions in her mind, and was afraid to ask any of them.
But another thought occurred to her suddenly. What if this was still some kind of trick? Just because he was a Herald, then....
:It is Vanyel,: Gwena repeated, in reply to the unvoiced suspicion. Elspeth could sense that she was seriously shaken :And this is not a trap or, at least, not a trap of an enemy. Trust me in this.:Then, as if to herself, she added, :This was not in the plan.:
Before Elspeth could react to either statement, the spirit himself replied - his smite fading, and being replaced with a look of stern seriousness :There have been many things done that were not in the "plan," sister,: he said, without apology :And for the better. I have many reasons to be less than fond of predestined paths. And it would be wise for you and Rolan to recall that plans seldom survive the first engagement with the enemy. A plan that has been in operation as long as this one of yours should never have lasted as long as it did.:
Gwena's head came up, and her eyes widened, as if she had not expected to be chided. She staggered back a step.
Vanyel's smile returned, this time for Elspeth. :Personally, I think you have been doing well, especially for someone who had to constantly fight "plans" that had been made without her consent or knowledge.:He glanced from Elspeth to Darkwind and back :I think you will upset a few more plans before you're through. Things should be very interesting for you, at any rate, once you reach Haven. For what it's worth, you have my sympathy.:
"This is a fine family chat. I'm having a delightful time. May I interrupt and ask how in the silver skies did you bring us here?" Firesong demanded.
:Ah. I'm sorry I had to interfere with your intended destination and your Gate - but this was my only chance to intercept all of you, together. There are forces marshaling now that you need to know about, or Valdemar will be worse off than I can affect. Much worse than what King Valdemar's people fled.:
Elspeth felt a chill run up her back at his words. There were some who had held - sentimentally, she had always thought - that Vanyel somehow protected Valdemar, haunting the Forest of Sorrows. It seemed the sentimentalists were right.
Treyvan's feathers were slowly smoothing down; he clicked his beak twice, and said - with remarkable mildness, Elspeth thought, considering the circumstances - "I did not know you could change the dessstination of a Gate," He cocked his head to one side, and continued, making no secret of his surprise, "I know of no one alive who can do ssso - "
Then he stopped short, as he realized that he was not precisely talking to someone who was alive.
:No need to apologize, Treyvan. I've had a great deal of time to research the subject,: Vanyel replied, actually sounding a bit sheepish.
As he spoke, Elspeth noticed that he faded in and out, as if the amount of power he was using to maintain himself, or his control over it, fluctuated.
:I would imagine you have, youngster,: Need's dry mental voice replied :Although Gates are not precisely my specialty, I recall someone in my time learning how to kidnap the unwitting by interfering with their Portals.:
:Ah. So I have not discovered anything new.:Did he sound a little disappointed? :Well, that means that the rest of you can uncover this "secret" for yourselves, later. Right now, you need to hear some things, and I am the one to tell you. That is why I diverted you.:
:Kidnapped us, you mean,: Need interrupted :There are people in k'Treva Vale who are probably tearing their elaborately braided white hair out with anxiety right now! Never thought of that, did you, boy?:
Vanyel did not exactly sigh, but Elspeth did get a sense of impatience :Then perhaps Firesong ought to send a message telling them you will be all right, shouldn't he?:
Now it was Firesong's turn to look impatient. "You haven't exactly given me a chance to, Forefather!" he snapped. "If you all don't mind, I shall do exactly that!"
He turned and stalked off into the forest, the white dyheli following. His firebird flapped its wings a little to keep its balance as he turned, and favored Vanyel with a contemptuous look and a chitter.
:Oh, dear. I seem to have put my foot in it - and he's as touchy as I used to be,: the spirit said, chagrined :I hope he'll accept an apology.:
"Oh, don't worry too much about it," Darkwind said unexpectedly, giving Vanyel a half grin. "I think he's more upset by the fact that he isn't the most powerful Adept around anymore. And it doesn't matter whether you really are what you claim you are, the fact that you played with his Gate proves you're stronger than he is. Besides - you made a better entrance than he did."
Elspeth favored her lover with an odd look. He was certainly taking this apparition rather well - better than she was, in fact. She still wasn't entirely certain that this spirit was who and what he said he was.
No matter what Gwena said. Companions weren't infallible. Could they be fooled?
:Still, I seem to be as bad at handling people's feelings as I was back in my own time....:This time the spirit did sigh :Shall we take this from the beginning? I need to speak with all of you, but the ones I need to speak with the most are Elspeth and Darkwind - :
Some of her growing skepticism must have shown, for he stopped and looked only at her.
:You still are not certain that I am genuine, or of my motives. I think you've gotten much more cautious than you once were,: the spirit said at last.
:She's had a good teacher,: Need said gruffly :Me. I wouldn't believe the spirit of my own mother if she showed up with as little proof of who she was as you've given us. "Trust me" doesn't fly. If you want her to believe you 're what you say you are, you 'd better give her some proof she'll recognize.:
The spirit actually laughed, then turned to Elspeth :Will it constitute proof if I answer some questions? Things no one outside of Valdemar could know the answers to except me?:
She nodded, slowly. It would certainly be a start, anyway.
:The thing that is most on your mind is the "banishment" of magic from Valdemar, and the fact that not only is it impossible for mages to remain, it isn't even possible for magic to be thought of for very long. The two are related, but not from the same cause. The first is my fault, a spell I created. It wasn't supposed to work that way,: he added ruefully :I was interrupted by emergencies before I could complete what I'd planned, and I never got back to it. What I did was to set the vrondi to watching for mage-energy in use. You know what vrondi are, I hope?:
She did, although she hadn't ever heard the name before she came to k'Sheyna. "The little air-elementals that we call to set the Truth Spell," she replied.
Vanyel nodded vigorously. She noticed then that although his feet touched the ground, the grass stems poked right through them. Hard to counterfeit that effect.... :Exactly. And before you ask, even though it is true magic, since you are Heralds they know not to pester you when you cast the spell that calls them. Heralds casting true magic will never be bothered; I couldn't have them swarming every Herald-Mage in the Kingdom, after all! My aunt would never have let me hear the last of that.:
Considering what the Herald-Chronicler of the time had to say about Vanyel's formidable aunt, Herald Savil, Elspeth had to chuckle a little at that. She had apparently been a match for Kerowyn.
:So, when the vrondi saw magic, if it hadn't been cast by a Herald, they were supposed to tell the nearest Herald-Mage, then keep an eye on the person using the mage-energy unless the Herald-Mage told them differently. I was going to change the spell, later - to ask the vrondi to "light up" the person who was using the mage-energy the way they do with a Truth Spell, to make the mage rather conspicuous. I thought that was better than having them simply watch the mage, especially since there might not be a Herald-Mage anywhere nearby - :
"Unfortunately, after you, there weren't any Herald-Mages at all," Elspeth said dryly.
:Well, that's true. No active ones, anyway. So now they just watch. The longer the mage sticks around, the more of them come to watch. It's horribly uncomfortable, since mages can sense the vrondi, and it's rather like being stared at by an increasing crowd all the time.:The spirit shook his head :The borders have changed since I set the spell, and so far as the vrondi are concerned, the "border" really ends where the presence of active, on-duty Heralds ends. They don't always notice where Heralds are unless one of them has invoked Truth Spell lately in that area. So the "borders" are changing all the time, and sometimes mages on the Rethwellan or Karsite borders, or the borders on the west, can get fairly far in before they're stopped. I'm afraid that, enthusiastic as they are, well, vrondi just aren't too bright themselves.:
Elspeth nodded; that made sense. The vrondi did not seem to be terribly reliable outside of exact instructions, although they were like puppies, and very eager to please. "But what about the way people simply can't think about magic?" she persisted. "The vrondi couldn't possibly be responsible for that!"
:No, I am. It was something we decided on after Van and I got together again.:
This was a new mind-voice, and after a moment, Elspeth saw the second, misty figure beside the first. It was nowhere near as well-defined, but if this was Vanyel -
:Yes, that was Stef's idea,: Vanyel said, confirming Elspeth's guess :Tell them why, ashke.:
:Because we still had a problem with people refusing to give up the notion that Herald-Mages were somehow superior to Heralds with other Gifts,: the new voice sighed :It seems to be an inherent weakness of people to think magic cures every ill. The Bards did their best, but there were still those who felt that the young King was hiding the Herald-Mages away somewhere, keeping them for "special purposes" of his own, or reserving their powers for his own personal friends and favorites. So - we decided it would be best for people to simply "forget" that any magic but mind-magic had ever existed in Valdemar, except in old tales and songs.:
There was a third and larger figure forming behind the other two, and this one was as strong or stronger than Vanyel - and there was no mistake that it was horse-shaped.
Yfandes - Elspeth thought, and as she recognized Vanyel's Companion, the spirit tossed her head in an unmistakable motion of summoning. Without a single word, Gwena and Cymry walked toward her; she led them off into the forest.
:They - ah - need to talk,: Vanyel said delicately :Your Gwena, for all that she is Grove-bom, is just as fallible as any other mortal.:
"She's what?" Elspeth yelped. Darkwind squinted and scratched his ear to recover from her cry. Grove-born? And no doubt Elspeth had been made to forget that as well! This passed everything for sheer, unadulterated gall -
And oddly enough, it was what actually convinced her that Vanyel was Vanyel. No creature born outside Valdemar would know what a Grove-born Companion was. Few inside it would know, for that matter. And no one else would have dared to make such an incredible statement.
:She's Grove-born,: Vanyel repeated :So, they "forgot" to tell you that, too, hmm? Doubtless "for your own good." It's simple enough, Elspeth; you were going to be the first of the new Herald-Mages, so I suppose they thought you needed something a little more than the ordinary Companion.:Vanyel's mind-voice dripped irony :It never fails to annoy me how little faith people can have in each other, Herald or no. Ah, well. Now that 'Fandes has her away from you, I'll tell you what she may "forget" to tell you about the Grove-born. Be gentle on her, Elspeth; as Companions go - when compared to, say, Sayvil - she is very, very young. No older than you, in fact. She makes all the kinds of mistakes any young thing makes, but because she is Grove-born, she thinks she will always make the right decision.:He shook his head :She forgets that she has no real, human experience to base her decisions on. It is like dictating music when you yourself have never learned to play an instrument.:
If this was supposed to mollify Elspeth, it didn't work. But on the other hand, she had gotten used to Gwena, and her "habits"; by now she had a fair notion how to figure out what was going on from what Gwena wouldn't tell her. Gwena wasn't going to change, so there was really no point in getting upset with her at this late a date. And despite her faults, Gwena had been a good friend for a long time.
:Actually, it would be a good thing if I could have a word with the two adult gryphons along with Elspeth and Darkwind. Since there are magics to talk of, it would be best to discuss things with all the mages at once.:Vanyel looked hopefully at Treyvan and Hydona, as the little ones watched the spirit solemnly from behind their parents' wings :This valley is quite well shielded and protected; nothing can get in or out unless I permit it. The gryphlets could get some exercise.:
"While we adultsss ssspeak of thingsss that would bore them into missschief," Hydona laughed. "Well, if Rrisss isss willing to take charge of them - "
The kyree nodded his head in a way that made it look like a bow : Of course, lovely lady. I can continue hunting lessons if you like.:
Both gryphlets perked up their ear tufts at that, and suddenly the little round baby faces looked as fierce as the adults'. Elspeth kept forgetting that they were carnivores. They were so baby-fluffy and, well, cute. But they were raptorial, like Vree, and like him they enjoyed the hunt and the kill - when they actually succeeded at the latter, which wasn't often.
"Yesss," Hydona replied thoughtfully. "Hunting lesssonsss would be mossst appreciated."
:Then come along, younglings,: Rris said, trotting off with his tail high, looking surprisingly graceful for a creature the size of a young calf. The gryphlets bounded off after him, with a great deal less grace. Treyvan winced as Lytha crashed into a bush, tumbled head-over-tail, and kept right on going without even a pause. And Jerven was no more coordinated than his sister, blundering through the remains of the bush.
:This is not secret or private,: Vanyel said then, looking at Skif and Nyara, :But - much will be very technical. You may stay if you wish:
"I don't think so - thank you, but I'm not in the least interested. Really. I think I'd be better off not knowing," Skif said hastily. "And I wouldn't have Mage-Gift if you offered it to me. I wouldn't have it if you paid me Cymry's weight in gold to take it!"
He glanced at Nyara, who shrugged. Elspeth hadn't thought she would be interested, and she was not proven wrong. "My abilities are at the level of Journeyman in a school, or so Need tells me. I would be wasting my time with higher magics. The mage who knows how to use simple spells cleverly is just as effective as the Adept with no imagination. I should enjoy simply being with my friends in this lovely place."
And putting off the encounter with more strangers, Elspeth thought. I can't blame her, either.
:l'm too old to learn another style of magery without a long time to study it,: Need said :To be honest, youngsters, there's things I know you people have forgotten. Simple stuff, but sometimes simple is better. We'll run along, and you'II have your conference without me going "What?" every few moments.:
:Van, I can show them the springs,: Stefen offered.
At Vanyel's nod, Skif and Nyara followed the little wisp of mist that was Stefen out of the clearing. Firesong came back a moment later, face impassive and unreadable, but eyes sparkling.
"Mother says that this was quite discourteous and inconsiderate of you, even if you are our forefather," he announced. "She told me to tell you that you are old enough to have better manners, especially by now. The only way she is prepared to forgive you is if you teach me what you did. And how to defend against it, if there is any defense."
The spirit rippled, and Elspeth got the distinct impression Vanyel was either laughing or stifling laughter :Very well,: he said after a moment :It is, after aII, the least I can do. Now if you could make yourselves comfortable.:
That was not difficult to do, here. In fact, Elspeth suspected Vanyel had taken a leaf or two from the Hawkbrothers' book, and had constructed this place along the lines of a Vale.
The gryphons reclined on the soft grass, and Darkwind and Elspeth used them as backrests :The first thing I need to tell you about is what I call the Web,: Vanyel said :I created it because there were too few Herald-Mages left - originally there were four we called Guardians who remained at Haven and kept up a constant watch on the Borders. I changed that; I tied all Heralds and Companions into a net of completely unconscious communication. Now when there is danger in any direction, Heralds with ForeSight who are in a position to alert those who can do something about it have a vision or dream. That's how everyone knows when a Herald dies. And it's one way for the vrondi to know where Heralds are.:
"We have done such things, but only for ssshort periodsss of time," Hydona offered. "Becaussse we did not know how to make it an unconssscious ability."
:The Companions are the key,: Vanyel told her. :because they are already linked. I couldn't have managed otherwise.:
"Hmm." Treyvan nodded thoughtfully.
:I never meant anything but the Web to have to last as long as it has,: Vanyel continued :The vrondi-spell has eroded near to nothing, and constant attacks on it from Hardorn are taking their toll. I'm going to have to take it down in a controlled manner before someone breaks it and harms the vrondi in the process. Whether or not it goes back up again will depend on your choices later.:
It was a good thing they were well-fed and well-rested, or Elspeth would have asked for a recess to think all this through. This was not precisely what Elspeth had expected to hear - but it was logical enough. Harm to the vrondi might mean that they would flee Valdemar altogether, and that would cause more problems than taking down the spell would.
"If you remove the warn-off, then mages will be able to enter Valdemar," Darkwind pointed out, as a light breeze stirred his hair. The breeze was from Vree stooping on Treyvan's head and crest-feathers, then angling up to perch in a tree and preen. "Many mages, in fact, through Valdemar's unfortified borders."
:Precisely.:Vanyel was clearly pleased :Now I plan to do several things, besides removing the spell. First, I will need to build a Gate to send you home. This will deplete me seriously for a time, and I do not know how long that-will be. I will have to concentrate all my attention on this Border, and I will not be able to even offer such paltry distractions as I did against your Falconsbane - along with the Shin'a'in - to make him think that another Adept was courting him for an alliance.:
Darkwind raised an eyebrow at Elspeth. She nodded; she had already known about the Shin'a'in Kal'enedral being involved. Vanyel's help was probably why the ruse had been so effective; Falconsbane would have seen the traces of real magic at work and if the suspicion that the Shin'a'in were running a trick on him had even occurred to him, he would have dismissed it immediately, since the Shin'a'in didn't use magic.
"What about Ancar?" she asked. "He'll know when that spell comes down."
:Ancar, yes. And others. You will have to warn your people through Gwena and Rolan that the barrier is coming down. I will do this just before I send you home. That way they will be prepared for magical incursions - although I do not think that Ancar will be able to react immediately. He is disposed toward grandiose plans, and those take time to prepare.:
"Hmm." Elspeth replied, after a moment of thought. "Even if he's watching for it to break, he likely won't have anyone strong there to do anything. He doesn't trust his powerful mages out of his sight."
:Once the barrier is down and you are home, there is nothing else I can do,: Vanyel said :Now, about the new Heartstone in the Palace at Haven....:Firesong looked up alertly, interest immediately captured :I anchored the power in the stone I used to center the Web. You will find it in the old Palace in one of the old mage workrooms, and it is on the middle of a table that seems rooted to the floor. It is not yet activated, and I left it that way, keyed only to Firesong.:
Fortunately for Skif's mental comfort, as they left the clearing, Stefen became gradually less ephemeral and more solid, until at last he seemed almost normal - so long as you ignored the fact that you could see right through him. He seemed a cheerful young man, although his hair couldn't quite seem to make up its mind whether it wanted to be blond or red.
:Here we are - :Stefen announced proudly :I thought you'd like this place. It's very romantic.:
Romantic? Hardly an adequate description for a place where trees overhung a mossy cup of a valley, where delicate flowers bloomed at precisely the right spots, and where a tiny waterfall trickled musically down the back wall of the valley, to fill a perfect, rock-rimmed basin just big enough for two if they cared for a little waterplay. In a candlemark or two the sun would be above the trees, warming this valley and the tiny pool.
Skif had the suspicion that Stefen had a hand in somehow creating this idyllic little hideaway, and was waiting for a reaction.
"This is...this is lovely," he said, finally. "I haven't seen anything prettier even in k'Sheyna Vale."
Stefen looked pleased as Nyara nodded agreement :I've been training the trees and the plants,: he said diffidently :Not in the way of a Hawkbrother or anything, but - I'm glad you like it. Van likes it, but he's rather biased on my behalf.:
"If you don't mind my asking," Skif said hesitantly, "Why have you two - you know, stuck around all this time?"
:Gods.:Stefen looked embarrassed :Responsibility, I suppose. I mean, we finished off magic in Valdemar, and until people were ready to accept Mage-Gift as just one more Gift, someone had to make certain that another wizard-lord like Leareth didn't come down out of the mountains with a mage-army. Van didn't trust his barriers against someone with Adept strength. So - :he shrugged, : - here we are.:
"And I suppose you planned on doing something to educate the next Herald-Mages?" Skif persisted.
:Well, only if there was no other way. We hadn't counted on Gwena getting things mucked up with all her grand plans and predestined paths. If there's anything that Van hates, it's a Glorious Destiny.:Stefen chuckled :If he's said it once, he's said it a hundred times. "Glorious Destinies get you Glorious Funerals." Anyway, mostly we're too busy watching for idiot fuzzy barbarians or mages with ambition trying to cross this border to pay too much attention to what's going on down south. Until Elspeth started flinging levin-bolts around, that is.:
"So you have been aware of that?" Skif asked.
Stefen laughed silently :I should say, Van couldn't help but notice, she's in his bloodline, and he put that other spell on all his relatives so he 'd know if anyone was trying to turn them into frogs or flatten them or something. That kind of thing persisted a lot longer than he thought it would, too.:
"Perhaps your Vanyel is a better mage than even he gave himself credit for being," Nyara observed quietly.
Stefen favored her with a sweet smile :Once Elspeth started working magic in the Vales, that got his attention and he found out what was going on down there with you folks. He wanted to do something, but he knew his powers were pretty limited that far away. Eventually he started helping the Shin'a'in distract that nasty piece of work, Falconsbane. Sent mage winds to break all his windows, then replaced them with red glass, sent him black roses using a firebird as the carrier - we had a lot of fun with that. And the crystal paperweight with the castle and snow. Even 'Fandes enjoyed that.:
"I imagine," Skif said dryly. "So now what do you plan for us?"
:Well, Van wanted me to talk to you two, actually. He says I'm better at emotional things, and he's afraid that - well, he knows that you two are not going to have an easy time of it. You know that, but it's still just an intellectual exercise for you. You aren't really prepared for what's going to happen.:
"It would help, Skif, if you tell me who these people are - or were - " Nyara said plaintively, sitting down on a rock and curling her legs underneath her. Skif took a place beside her. "It is obvious that you and Firesong trust them, but - "
Skif hit his forehead with the heel of his palm. "Oh, hellfires. I'm sorry, Nyara - "
:There wasn't time,: Stefen reminded him :Why don't you tell her, and I'll fill in what you don't know.:
:So, there it is. You 've seen for yourself that the stories about Van and 'Fandes and me being up here in Sorrows are true,: the spirit said cheerfully :It has been fun, actually. Maybe there are people who the Havens just won't have!:
Skif chuckled. Stefen was making it very easy to simply accept all this, acting quite like an ordinary human and not at all like something out of legends. Perhaps he was making a deliberate effort to do so; to Skif's mind that was a great deal easier than having the two spirits appear, ten feet tall, carrying flaming swords, thundering "Fear not!" There was a vitality and a lightness about the spirit; in fact, there was something about him that kept Skif from feeling worried or anxious when he had every reason to.
For that matter, there was also a feeling of familiarity about Stefen, as if he and the Bard had been old friends of the kind that can say anything to each other, and forgive anything....
"Skif, it seems to me - perhaps I am being forward, but - " Nyara hesitated, then continued as Stefen nodded encouragingly. "What he and Vanyel faced - between them - there is a great deal in common with our situation."
:I think so,: Stefen agreed :So does Van. That's part of why I wanted to talk with you.:He shrugged :You 'd have thought that once we were a pair, everything would have been lovely, but things kept happening that could have ruined it all. He spent a lot of time away from me. Not everyone accepted it. There were always things coming from outside of us that put strains on us, no matter what we did. Things were never perfect for more than a day at a time. Really - I think you would only harm yourselves if you expected perfection. You'd both just be unhappy when you didn't have it.:Stefen's attention was all on Nyara :And there is something else Van wanted me to tell you, Nyara. Your father is not sane by anyone's definition. What he did to you - wasn't sane. Insane people do things no one can anticipate. Nothing that happened to you is your fault. You didn't "deserve" it, or ask for it, or cause it. And what he did was not right. A parent who does that is a monster, and nothing more.:
Skif and Need had been trying to tell her the same things, but it was as if a light had suddenly been kindled inside her. And Skif knew why. This was a total stranger, affirming what people she knew cared for her had been saying. And this was a spirit as well, who presumably had a little more insight into things than a still-living mortal....
He shouldn't be jealous, just because it was Stefen who brought that light to her face and not him. And he knew he shouldn't be. But he couldn't help suffering a sharp stab of jealousy anyway.
:This won't be the last time you're jealous, old man,: said Stefen, and he somehow knew Stefen spoke only to him :She can't help what she is. There are those who will find her desirable only because she is exotic, and others who will be certain she cannot resist them. She was built for a single purpose, and it still marks her. You have hard times ahead.:
Skif's jealousy turned to despair; how could he ever hope to hold Nyara once she entered Valdemar and began to meet others? Why should she wish to stay with him? There were people of wealth who had far more to offer than he did. He couldn't even offer her protection from the curious and the unkind. He was a Herald and had duties; he couldn't be with her every moment.
:Don't be a bigger ass than you have to be,: Stefen said sharply :She loves you, for one thing. And for another - you will likely be the only creature she ever encounters who sees and desires her for her, herself, and not as an object to be possessed. She has had quite enough of that in her life, and believe me, she knows how to recognize it when she sees it.:
Skif blinked as a bee buzzed near his face. He also would have blushed, if Stefen had not resumed the conversation as casually as if he had not interrupted it to talk to Skif alone :There's no great virtue in being lifebonded, you know. It's a lot like having a Predestined Fate; often uncomfortable, frequently inconvenient, usually hazardous.:
Skif shook his head, and waved the bee away. He had often envied Talia and Dirk - how could Stefen say something like that? Wasn't being lifebonded the ultimate love?
"I thought lifebonding was something to be sought above all else," Nyara replied dubiously.
:That's the poets' and Bards' interpretation,: Stefen said with a grimace :It has far more to do with compatibility than with love, and the match is more random than, say - finding two people from different countries with exactly the same eye color. When you're lifebonded, your choices are limited to the things you both want, because if your lifebonded is unhappy, so are you. It takes two very strong, well-established personalities to make a lifebonded pair work, because if one is passive, he 'II be eaten alive by the other.:
"That doesn't sound very pleasant," Skif put in. "In fact it doesn't even sound - romantic. It sounds like a disease."
Stefen laughed :I don't know about a disease, but it isn't love, that's for certain, even though love usually cements the bond. Van thinks that it's likelier that someone with an extremely powerful Gift of some kind and a tendency to deep depression will be lifebonded than someone who is not so burdened and hag-ridden. That's so the Gifted-and-suicidal half has someone outside of himself to keep him stable and give him an external focus. But - all we know is that while it's rare, it isn't something to yearn after.:
"To think I've envied Talia all this time - " Skif mused. And at Stefen's puzzled look, he added, "That's the current Queen's Own."
:Of course, the one with all the Empathy! 'Fandes almost swatted her once, when she thought the girl was going to lose all control: Before Skif could express his surprise, Stefen went on :I liked her, though - so, she lifebonded? You shouldn't be too surprised. I'll bet I can describe her lifemate. Strong, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, tends to keep his feelings to himself, the kind of man everyone knows they can depend on. Little children and animals love him immediately.:
"That's Dirk!" Skif exclaimed.
:So, that illustrates my point. Love now - a good, solid love is something infinitely rarer and more difficult to maintain, because you don't know everything your partner is feeling. Love takes work. Love means being able to apologize and mean it when you blunder. Love is worth fighting for!: Stefen sounded absolutely fierce :One of the very things that made what Van and I have a love-match as well as a lifebonding was that we were so different. It is like a marriage - you marry who you think your beloved is, and then discover who they really are over the years. It's that discovery that makes a marriage work :
:We did have things in common, lots of them, but you would never have assumed that from first seeing us. It made hunting and finding them all the sweeter. And it gave us chances to introduce each other to something new. You two have that same opportunity. Van and I took pride in being different - we enjoyed the diversity to be found among people of all kinds, and we enjoyed the diversity in the two of us.:
Before Skif could react to this, Need spoke up :All very pretty, I'm sure,: she said scathingly :But this is Skif we're talking about. You're assuming the young lout has enough imagination to recognize diversity.:
"Of course he has imagination!" Nyara exclaimed immediately. "How can you say something so stupid?"
:Oh, he has about as much imagination as he has sensitivity,: Need continued as if she hadn't noticed Nyara's angry exclamation :Frankly, I think both of you are giving him more credit than he deserves.:
Skif wisely kept his mouth shut. He thought he saw what Need was up to. Furthermore, Stefen, after all his impassioned speeches, was keeping quite, quite silent -
And Nyara had taken his hand in a most unmistakably possessive manner. With her other hand, she drew Need from her sheath. Need rasped on. When she insulted Skif's sexual prowess, Nyara pitched the sword away with a hiss.
Skif held Nyara closer. She glared at the discarded sword.
:Well, I've tried to shake you before, but this is going to be the last time,: the sword said, sounding pleased :If I can't rattle your faith in each other, no one can.:
:Exactly so, you crafty woman,: Stefen replied :You see, Skif? If her heart doesn't lie with you, then I know nothing of the heart - and as a Bard that has been my special study for a long time. And Nyara - he trusts you enough to allow you to fight your own battle and win, even when he is the target. Love is as much trust as it is devotion.:
Nyara's face relaxed, then she snorted a tension-breaking laugh and picked up Need. "You fooled me again, you chunk of lead. But - I was not perfectly ????--missing--
Skif smiled. Life was very, very good at the moment.
:Oh, there is no such thing as perfection, or a "perfect" love - Van and I still argue and even become angry with each other,: Stefen countered :It annoys the birds and small animals to no end when we do. I doubt there is even perfection in the Havens. Wouldn't perfection be a bore?:
:Build on what you have, children,: Need said gruffly :The foundation is a good one, so now see what kind of a house you can raise. And don't worry if the windows aren't the right size, the door is too tall, or there's dust on the mantelpiece. Just make sure the walls and the ceiling are sound, and make certain your home holds laughter. The dust will take care of itself.:
"I think we can do that," Skif told Need, feeling much better about the entire relationship than he ever had before. "We'll certainly try." He squeezed Nyara's hand, not noticing the claws. "And we'll succeed. Won't we?" he finished, looking into her eyes. "Oh, yes," she answered, smiling. "I know we will."
Treyvan curled his tail around his haunches and waited beside the cave for his mate. He needed to have a discussion with her that he did not want anyone to overhear. Especially not certain interfering spirits....
It had been two days since their unexpected arrival in the Forest of Sorrows. The gryphlets had taken it all in stride, as they always did, and found excuses to chase things and chew on them at every opportunity. Rris had been as faithful as a hertasi and infinitely patient. Firesong had apparently come to grips with his changing status - that is, not being fawned over - and his dyheli companion remained nonplussed. And Vree - well, Vree had resumed hunting crest-feathers. Treyvan tolerated that. It was something familiar in an unfamiliar environment.
It had taken that long to make certain everything was ready for the Gate to go up - and for Vanyel's protective spells to corne down. When the moment came, it would feel to the gryphons like the magical equivalent of a change in air pressure before a storm, then all would be calm. Valdemar had been alerted, and there would be an escort waiting for Elspeth and her friends at the terminus of the Gate.
That would be at the entrance to the family chapel at Ashkevron Manor. It was the only place still standing intact that Vanyel knew well enough to make into a Gate-terminus. The chapel in Companion's Field was a ruin, and Elspeth could not honestly assure him that the Palace still looked the way it had when he was still alive. Doors had been sealed up, new doors had been cut - trim and decorations had been added and taken away.
But nothing ever changed in the core building of the Ashkevron home. Elspeth had told them all she recalled hearing some of the family actually boasting about just that. There was even a story that if anyone ever did anything besides add to the buildings, the ghost of some long-dead ancestor would rise out of the grave to haunt the one who dared change what he had wrought.
Firesong had been of two minds about going on with Elspeth, until Vanyel had brought out an argument the spirit had held in reserve. It had been on the afternoon of the first day, when the Hawkbrother had said, dubiously, "It is all very well for Darkwind to follow Elspeth into her land, but what ties have I to such a place? Especially when I have duties elsewhere. And while it is true enough that I have experience with a living Heartstone, well, so does Darkwind. He knew enough before he became a scout to be counted among the Adepts."
Vanyel had nodded, acknowledging the truth of that. But then he had countered that argument :It is the duty of the Tayledras to heal places where magic has gone wrong,: he pointed out :And that is doubly the duty of a Healing Adept, such as you. True?:
"True enough," Firesong had replied, warily.
:Well, then, is it not the duty of a Tayledras Healing Adept to prevent the misuse of magic that could poison the earth?:
"I - " Firesong had begun, even more warily. "I suppose so - "
:Then what of the consequences if the Heartstone beneath Haven fell into the hands of Ancar and his mages? What if its power were to be mismanaged through ignorance? Isn't it the duty of a Healing Adept to be as concerned with prevention as with results? Shouldn't, in fact, a Healing Adept be more concerned with prevention?: Vanyel had simply looked at Firesong, as a teacher looks at a student who has failed to study.
Treyvan had seen Elspeth suppress a smile. He knew that she wouldn't be able to resist the opportunity to pay Firesong back. "My stepfather has the earth-sense that a lot of the rulers of Rethwellan have," she had put in. "He says that Ancar does horrible things to the earth-magics in Hardorn - that during the last war he rode through a place where the magics had been so misused that the area was dying, and it made him ill just to ride across it."
Vanyel had nodded, as if to say, "There - you see?" and had turned his unwavering gaze back to Firesong.
The young Adept had grumbled something under his breath. "This is blackmail, you know," he had retorted at last. But when Vanyel did not reply, he had shaken his head, and finally given his reluctant agreement to go. "It may be blackmail, but it is also true," he had admitted, and had gone off to tell his Clan of the change in plans. "I shudder to think how fickle my home Vale will regard me after all these changes of plan."
Now it was Treyvan's turn to make a similar decision. Or rather, Treyvan and his mate, together, for he would make no such important decisions without her. They were explorers by choice. They had chosen, together, to be adventurers until the day fortune dashed them on the rocks. Their names would already live on in the stories told by their Clan, Treyvan knew, and perhaps even become legendary after a few more generations. Hadn't they done enough, after all?
Hydona came winging in from above, fanning her wings to break her dive and landing with practiced ease on the grass beside him. "Do not tell me," she said, snatching playfully at his crest-feathers. "I think I can guesss alrready. You wisssh usss to go with young Elssspeth and Darrrkwind."
He felt his eyes going round with surprise, and his beak gaped. "But how did you know?" he exclaimed. "Sssurely I sssaid nothing - "
"No, only you have hung upon everrry worrd of thisss Vanyel, and your earrrtuftssss have twitched each time sssomeone hasss even hinted of the grrryphonsss in the North of Valdemarrr." She shook her head vigorously, and a loose feather flew off and drifted down like a leaf to land in the grass beside her.
He was chagrined, but he had to admit that she was probably right; he had been that transparent. But how could he not be? Every Kaled'a'in gryphon knew that of all of the gryphon-wings flying for Mage Urtho, fully half of them had never reached the Gate that had taken the Kaled'a'in safely away before Urtho's stronghold fell. Most of those had been out on the front lines with the army. Of those, some must have died - but surely others had escaped to live elsewhere. There were more than enough mages in Urtho's army to have set up Gates enough to take those fighting to safety as well, before or after the blast that obliterated Urtho's stronghold and Ma'ar's together.
The only way to find out - or at least the only way that would satisfy Treyvan - would be to try to find these gryphons themselves.
"We arrre magesss," Hydona pointed out thoughtfully. "And both the little onesss have Mage-Gift alssso. We will need to trrain them - ssso why not trrain otherrrsss at the sssame time?"
"What, like Herrraldsss?" The idea had already occurred to him, but he was pleased that Hydona had thought of it as well. "It isss trrrue that it would do the little onesss a grrreat deal of good to have sssome competition bessidesss each otherrr. And it could gain usss valuable alliesss."
Her beak gaped in a gentle grin. Oh, how beautiful she was! "My thought prrrecisssely. Thisss issss why I have alrrready told Vanyel that if you wisshed to go, I would not arrrgue with sssuch a change in plansss."
He mock-snapped at her. "Imperrrtinent! Making asssumptionsss - "
"Perrrfectly valid onesss," she pointed out, reaching out to preen his ears. He submitted to her readily, half-closing his eyes in pleasure. "I, of all alive, know you bessst."
"Verrry well, then," he said, with feigned reluctance. "I will misss going to Evendim, but perrrhapsss anotherrr time. If you will have it that way, tell thisss Vanyel that we will be going with Elssspth and our otherrr ssson." He sighed. "I sssupposse it isss jusst asss well. With the way Gating hasss been lately, who knowsss where we might end up otherrrwissse?"
"Mmm," she agreed, mouth full of his feathers.
He closed his eyes completely, and gave himself up to her ministrations.
Ancar started, as a huskily feminine and far-too-familiar voice startled him in the midst of searching through a chest of documents in the war-room.
"Well. What a pleasant surprise. I had not expected to find you here."
The silky-smooth tone of Hulda's voice sent a shiver of warning up Ancar's back. She only sounded this sweet when she wanted something - or when she was about to confront him over something, and she knew she had the upper hand.
He straightened, slowly, schooling his face into an impassive mask. He should not fear this woman. He had already subdued a powerful, half-human Adept to his will. She was no greater in power than this "Falconsbane" creature. He had no reason to fear her anger.
But her appearance was not reassuring. She was impeccably gowned and coiffed, looking as near to demure as she ever got. That meant she had found out something that she didn't like, and she was going to have it out with him, here and now.
While he smiled and granted her an ironic little bow, his thoughts raced behind his careful shields. Could she have discovered Falconsbane? But how? He had been so careful. No one came near the creature but those servants he himself controlled.
"Why, my dear teacher, how pleasant to see you, after so very long," he replied carefully. "I had thought that your new young friend was occupying all your time - "
"Enough fencing, child," she snapped at him. "We both know you've been up to something, meddling with energies you shouldn't have touched! And so does every mage sensitive to the flows of power! Your fumbling created some unpleasant echoes and ripples that are still causing me problems with my own spells, and I wonder how any of your pets are getting anything at all done!"
"My fumblings?" He felt sweat trickling down his back beneath his heavy velvet tunic, and he hoped that he wasn't sweating anywhere that she would notice. "What are you talking about?" Could it be that she actually didn't know what he had done?
"Don't try to toy with me, boy!" she growled. "You were playing with some kind of odd spell or other, and it was either something you made up yourself, or something you got out of one of your damned scraps of half-literate grimoires! Which was it?"
Before he could answer, she cut him off with a gesture. "Never mind," she said. "Don't bother to lie to me. I'll tell you what it was. You were trying to build a Gate, weren't you?"
He stared at her dumbly as she continued, her strange violet eyes flashing with scorn.
"You haven't even the sense to fear a Gate Spell, you fool!" she snarled. "Don't you know what the thing would have done if you hadn't broken it first? It would have turned back on you and eaten you alive! Building a Gate without knowing where you want it to go, precisely and exactly where, is the kind of mistake that will be your last! You must have used up a lifetime's worth of luck to escape that fate, you blithering idiot."
She went on and on at some length in the same vein; he simply hung his head so that she could not see his eyes and nodded like the foolish child she had named him. He stared at his feet as his sweat cooled, and his flush of fear faded. But beneath his submissive behavior, he was wildly excited and he did not want her to realize what she had just told him.
She had answered his every question about the so-called "portal" he had created! It was not a way to pull in node-energy, but was instead something entirely different, a way to create a doorway that would lead him instantly to any place he chose!
She had given him a weapon of incredible power and versatility, without knowing what she had done. Already he could imagine hundreds of ways to use such doorways.
He could simply step through such a door and into the very heart of a citadel. He could move entire armies without wearying them. He could use these doors to obtain anything or anyone he wanted, without worrying about such pesky complications as guards, locks, or discovery....
As she railed on, pacing back and forth like a restless panther in her black velvet, he also realized from what she did not say that she was completely unaware that he had brought anything through his Gate.
She mentioned nothing of the sort, in fact, not even as a horrible possibility. She seemed to be under the impression that he had sensed the Gate turning back on him and, in a panic, had broken the spell, collapsing the Gate upon itself.
He kept his face stiff and expressionless. He answered her, when she demanded answers, in carefully phrased sentences designed to maintain that fiction. The longer he could keep Falconsbane a secret from her, the better.
At least, until the moment that the Adept had recovered enough to bring him openly into the court as a putative ally. That way he would be able to work with Falcons-bane without fear of Hulda's reactions.
She has her friends, the ambassador and his entourage from the Emperor...I should introduce Falconsbane as an envoy from the West, beyond Valdemar. She may even try to win him over. He'd appeal to her, I expect. Perhaps I should even let her seduce him - or him, her. I'm not certain which of the two would be the quicker to take the other....
As she used up her anger, wearing it out against the rock of his submission, her voice dropped and her pacing slowed. Finally she stopped and faced him.
"Look at me," she demanded. Slowly, as if he were afraid of her continued wrath, he raised his eyes. "Do not ever attempt that spell again," she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. "It is beyond you. It is far more dangerous than you can guess, and it is well beyond your current ability and skill. Furthermore, it is obvious that you do not have the whole of the instructions for such a spell. Half-understood spells are more dangerous to the caster than to anyone else. Is that understood?"
He nodded, meekly. "Yes, Hulda," he replied softly. She gave him a sharp look, but evidently did not see anything there to make her suspect his duplicity.
"See that you remember it, then," she said, and turned on her heel and left in a swirl of velvet skirts.
Ancar could hardly contain his excitement. If Hulda knew enough to identify this Gate Spell simply by the effects it had on the mage-energies of the area, how much more could his captive know? He burned to find out.
But he did nothing. Not immediately, anyway. Hulda almost certainly had someone watching him; she might even be watching him herself. If he ran off now, he would lead her to his captive.
So he continued with the task that had brought him here in the first place; unearthing a long-ignored map of the west and south, which included Valdemar and what little was known of the area beyond that land. If Falconsbane came from anywhere about there, he might be able to identify the spot on this map.
The map lay at the very bottom of the document chest, amid the dust and dirt of years of neglect. Ancar unrolled it to be certain that it was still readable, then rolled it back up and inserted it in a map tube for safekeeping.
Even then he did not hurry off to where his captive waited for him. Instead, he tended to several small problems that needed his personal touch, heard the reports of his seneschal and the keeper of his treasury, and looked over the written reports of those mages watching the border of Valdemar. He stuck the map tube in his belt and pretended to forget it was there.
Only then did he leave the central portion of the palace and stroll in the direction of the wing to which he had moved his captive once the creature began to recover properly.
As far as he could tell, there was no one observing his movements at that point, although there had been at least one guard and two servants covertly keeping an eye on him right up until the moment he began looking over the written reports from his mages.
He allowed himself a small smile of victory and put a little more haste into his steps.
The new quarters were an improvement over the old, which had been reasonably luxurious, although not what Falconsbane was used to. This was clearly a suite in Ancar's palace, albeit in a very old section of the palace. Age did not matter; what mattered was that it bore all the signs of having been unused for some time, but it had not been cleaned and refurbished hastily. Some care had been taken to clean and air the place thoroughly, and to ensure that everything was in proper order for the kind of "guest" that the King would consider important.
This somewhat mollified Falconsbane, but only in part. Ancar had not removed or eased the coercions, and his own body continued to betray him with weakness.
He sat now in a supportive chair, padded with cushions. A table within reach bore wine and fruit. Soft light from candles set throughout the room provided ample illumination - making up for the fact that the windows were closely shuttered, and no amount of threat or cajolery on Falconsbane's part would get the servants to open them. Ancar had delivered his orders, it seemed, and they were not to be disobeyed.
The King had arrived for his daily visit, and there seemed to be much on his mind, not all of it satisfactory. He immediately plunged into a flurry of demands for information, demands which had little or no apparent relationship to each other.
"I cannot properly answer your questions," Falconsbane said, with more far more seeming patience than he truly felt, "unless you explain to me what your situation is."
He kept his tone even and calm, pitching it in such a way as to do no more than border on the hypnotic and seductive. He had tried both seduction and fascination a few days ago, in an effort to persuade the upstart to release some of the coercions - and had come up against a surprising wall of resistance. After contemplating the situation, he had come to the conclusion that this resistance to subversion had not come about by accidental or true design.
No, there was someone in Ancar's life who had once wielded these very weapons against him to control him, someone he no longer trusted. Thus, the resistance. Falconsbane would have to use a more subtle weapon than body or mind.
He would have to use words.
An exasperating prospect. This sort of thing took time and patience. He did not wish to take the time, and he had little love for exercising patience.
However needful it might be.
However, the fact that Ancar had this core of resistance at all told him one very important fact. There was someone in this benighted place that had once controlled the little fool, and who might still do so.
That someone - given Ancar's biases - was probably female and attractive. That in itself was interesting, because attractive females seldom lost power until they lost their attraction.
He needed to find out more about this woman, whoever, whatever she was. And he needed to discover who had taught the King enough so that the boy was able to command the power of a Gate, however inexpertly and briefly.
Ancar looked away uneasily, as he always did when Falconsbane fixed him with that particular stare. It was as if the youngster found even the appearance of patience unnerving. The soft candlelight touched the boy-King's face; it was a handsome face, with no hint of the excesses fearfully whispered about among the servants.
Had his own servants whispered? Probably. Had their whispers mattered? Only in that rumors made them fear him, and fear made them obey him. Small wonder the child held the reins, given the fear his servants displayed.
"I don't know what you mean," Ancar said. He was lying, but Falconsbane did not intend him to escape so easily.
"You ask me many questions about magic, in a most haphazard manner, and I can see no pattern behind what you wish to know. Yet there must be one. If you will simply tell me what drives these questions, perhaps I can give you better answers."
Ancar contemplated that for a moment, then rubbed his wrist uneasily. "I have enemies," he said, after a long moment.
Falconsbane permitted himself a slight snort of contempt. "You are a King. Every King has enemies," he pointed out. "You must be more specific if I am to help you. Are these enemies within your court, within your land, or outside of both?"
Ancar moved, very slightly.
Falconsbane could read the language of body and expression as easily as a scholar a book in his own language. Ancar had winced when Falconsbane had said, "within your court." So there were forces working against the King from within. Could the woman Falconsbane had postulated be one of those forces?
"Those within it are the ones that most concern me," he finally replied, as Falconsbane continued to fix him with an unwavering gaze.
The Adept nodded shrewdly. "Those who once were friends," he said flatly, making it a statement, and was rewarded once again by that faint wince. And something more. "No," he amended, "More than friends." Not relatives; he knew from questioning the servants that Ancar had assassinated his own father. "Lovers?" he hazarded.
Ancar started, but recovered quickly. "A lover," he agreed, the words emerging with some reluctance.
Falconsbane nodded, but lidded his eyes with feigned disinterest. "Such enemies are always the bitterest and most persistent." Dared he make a truly hazardous statement? Well, why not? "And generally, their hate is the greatest. They pursue revenge long past the point when another would have given over."
Slight relaxation told him his shot went wide of the mark. So, this woman was not aware she had lost her powers over the boy!
He made a quick recovery. "But she is foolish not to recognize that you are the one who hates, and not her. So she has lost her power over you, yet thinks she still possesses you." He smiled very slightly as Ancar started again. Good. Now ask a revealing question. "Why do you permit her to live, if you are weary of her?"
His question had caught the King off-guard, enough that the boy actually answered with the truth. "Because she is too powerful for me to be rid of her."
Falconsbane held his own surprise in check. Too powerful? The King could not possibly mean that she had secular power; he ruled his land absolutely; and took what he wanted from it. Servants had revealed that much, quite clearly. He could not mean rank, for Ancar had eliminated any other pretender to his throne, and anyone who had force of will or arms to challenge him.
There was only one thing the boy could mean, then. The woman was a more powerful mage than Ancar. Too powerful to subvert, too powerful to destroy. Hence, his desire for an equally powerful ally.
Many things fell into place at that moment, and Falconsbane decided to hazard all on a single cast of the dice. "Ah. Your teacher. A foolish thing, to make a lover of a student. It blinds the teacher to the fact that the student develops a will and a series of goals of his own, eventually; goals that may not match with that of the teacher. And it causes the teacher to believe that love or lust are, indeed, enough to make one blind, deaf, and dumb to faults."
Blank astonishment covered Ancar's face for an instant, then once again, he was all smoothness. "I am astonished by your insight," he replied, as if a moment before he had not had every thought frozen with shock. "Is this a power every Adept has?"
"By no means," Falconsbane replied lazily, picking up the goblet of wine on the table beside his chair, and sipping it for a moment. "If your loving teacher had such ability to read people, she would never have lost your affections, and we would not now be having this conversation. You would still be in her control."
Ancar nodded curtly as if he hated having to admit that this unknown woman had ever held him under control.
And he did not contradict Falconsbane's implication that his teacher was an Adept. Not surprising, then, the bitterness that crept through his careful mask. This young man was a foolish and proud man, and one who despised the notion that anyone could control him, much less a mere woman.
Foolish, indeed. Sex had much to do with power, but little to do with the ability of the wielder to guide it. Falconsbane had seen as many female Adepts in his time as male, and had made a point of eliminating the female rivals as quickly as possible, before they realized that he was a threat. It was easier to predict the thoughts and intentions of one's own sex, and that unpredictability was what made one enemy more dangerous than another.
This changed the complexion of his plans entirely, however. Ancar was not the dangerous one here; this woman was.
"Tell me of this woman," Falconsbane said casually. "All that you know." And as Ancar hesitated, he added, "If I do not know all, I cannot possibly help you adequately."
That apparently decided the boy. Now, at last, the information Falconsbane needed to put together a true picture of the situation here began to flow into his waiting ears and mind.
He felt a certain astonishment and startlement himself, several times, but he fancied he kept his surprise hidden better than Ancar had. This woman - this Hulda - was certainly an Adept of great power, and if she had not underestimated her former pupil, he would have granted her the accolade of great cleverness as well.
She was, at the minimum, twice, perhaps three times as old as she looked. This was not necessarily illusion; as Falconsbane knew well, exercise of moderation in one's vices, and access to a ready supply of victims to drain of life-forces, permitted an Adept to reach an astonishing age and still remain in a youthful stasis. One paid for it, eventually, but as Ma'ar had learned, when "eventually" came to pass, all those years might grant one the time needed to find another sort of escape from old age, death, and dissolution.
She had first attempted to subvert the young Heir of Valdemar, that same child he had seen and desired. Had she been aware of the girl's potential? Probably; even as an infant it should have been obvious to an Adept that the girl would be a mage of tremendous strength when she came into her power. Small wonder that "Hulda" - if that was her real name, which Falconsbane privately doubted - had attempted the girl first, before turning to Ancar as a poor second choice.
Ancar was not entirely clear how and why Hulda had been thwarted from her attempt to control the girl. Perhaps he didn't know. There was no reason for Hulda to advertise her defeat, after all, or the reasons for it. Ancar had been given the impression at the time - an impression, or rather illusion, that he still harbored - that Hulda had given up on the girl when she had become aware of him.
Falconsbane hid his amusement carefully. There was no point in letting the boy know just how ridiculous a notion that really was. It would gain him nothing, and might lose him yet more freedom if Ancar tightened his coercions in pique. One might choose a handful of wild berries and nuts in preference to a feast of good, red meat, but it would be a stupid choice. So, too, would choosing to subvert Ancar in preference to the young woman.
But apparently she had no options. So, after being routed from Valdemar, Hulda had turned her eyes toward Hardorn and had found fertile ground for her teachings and manipulations in the heir to that throne. She had promised, cajoled, and eventually seduced her way into Ancar's life, and had orchestrated everything he did from the moment she climbed into his bed until very recently.
But she had been incredibly stupid, for she had forgotten that all things are subject to change, and had grown complacent of late. She neglected her student for other interests. She promised, but failed to deliver upon those promises. Meanwhile Ancar tasted the exercise of power, and he found it a heady and eye-opening draught. He began to crave more of it, and that was when he realized that Hulda held more of it than he did - or ever would, while she lived.
So, although they had once been allies and even partners, they were now locked in a silent struggle for supremacy that Hulda had only now begun to recognize.
Falconsbane toyed with his goblet, listened, and nodded, saying nothing. Certainly he did not give voice to the contempt that he felt for this petty kinglet and mageling. Under any other circumstances he would have been able to crush Ancar like an overripe grape. He still could, if the coercions were eased sufficiently.
He learned also how little Ancar truly knew; how effective Hulda had been in denying him any training that might make him a threat to her power. His obsession with Gates now - if Falconsbane were not certain that the coercions binding him would probably cause the destruction of his mind if Ancar came to harm, he would have encouraged the fool's obsessions and illusions. The boy did not realize that he had no chance of ever controlling a real Gate. He simply did not have the strength. He had not figured out that a Gate could only go to places he himself had been, and not, as he fondly imagined, to any place he chose. He didn't really believe, despite the way he had been drained and the warnings in his fragment of manuscript, that Gate-energy came from him and not any outside sources of power like a node or energy-reserves.
Continued experiments would be certain to get him killed, and in a particularly nasty and messy fashion. Despite how much fun it would be to watch as his body was drained to a husk, there was the possibility that the royal whelp could tap Falconsbane's energy to save himself. That would be difficult to survive in his present state. So Falconsbane dissuaded Ancar from the idea, gently but firmly, pointing out that Hulda had known that he had been tinkering with the spell, and that she would certainly be on the watch for anything else of the sort. "Patience," he advised, as Ancar frowned. "First, we must rid ourselves of this aged female. Then I shall teach you the secrets of Greater Magics."
The power struggle between these two held far more promise of turning the tables on Ancar than anything else Falconsbane had yet observed. He noted how Ancar brightened at his last words, and smiled lazily.
"You can rid me of her?" the boy asked eagerly.
Falconsbane waved his hand languidly. "In time," he said. "I am not yet recovered; I must study the situation - and her. It would assist me greatly if you could manufacture a way to bring me into court, where I could observe her with my own eyes, and see what she is and is not capable of. I may note weaknesses in her armor, and I may know of ways to exploit those weaknesses that you do not."
Ancar nodded, his face now betraying both avidity and anticipation. "I had planned to introduce you as a kind of envoy, an ambassador from a potential Western ally. You must mask your powers from her, of course - "
"Of course," Falconsbane interrupted, with a yawn. "But this must wait until I have recovered all of my strength." He allowed his eyelids to droop. "I am - most fatigued," he murmured. "I become weary so easily...."
He watched from beneath his lids and Ancar was taken in by his appearance of cooperation. Good. Perhaps the boy would become convinced that the coercions were no longer needed. Perhaps he could be persuaded to remove them, on the grounds that they depleted him unnecessarily. Perhaps he would even remove them without any persuasion, secure in his own power and the thought that Falconsbane was his willing ally.
And perhaps Falconsbane would even be his willing ally.
An'desha felt sick, smudged with something so foul that he could hardly bear himself. It was a very physical feeling, although, strictly speaking, he no longer had a body to feel any of those things with. The spirits had warned him that he would encounter uncomfortable and unpleasant things in Falconsbane's memories. But neither they nor his own brief glimpses during his years of desperate hiding of what Falconsbane had done with his borrowed body had prepared him for the terrible things he confronted during that first look into Falconsbane's past.
For most of the day after his first foray into the Adept's memory, he had withdrawn quickly into his safe haven and had figuratively curled up there, shaken and nauseated, and unable to think. But his "haven" was really not "safe," and nothing would make the images acid-etched into his own memory go away. Still, he remained knotted about himself, tangled in a benumbed and sickened mental fog, right up until the arrival of some of King Ancar's servants. It seemed that the King had new plans for his captive; they had come to move the Adept to different quarters.
That move shook him out of his shock, although he had not paid a great deal of attention to Ancar before this. It occurred to him that he did not really know much about the Adept's captor. Ancar wanted something of Falconsbane - knowledge, power - but he might simply be ambitious and not evil. That made him think that he might be able to find some kind of ally among these people, someone who could help him to overcome Falconsbane and restore him to control of his much-abused body again.
After all, the spirits had not said he would be unable to find help here, they had simply offered him one possible option. And it was a Shin'a'in belief that the Goddess was most inclined to aid those who first put every effort into helping themselves.
So when Falconsbane was settled into his new, and to Shin'a'in eyes, bewilderingly luxurious suite of rooms, An'desha kept his own "ears" open to the gossip of the servants, hoping to learn something about the young King who had them in his possession. After all, if the King was a strong enough mage to put coercions on Falconsbane and keep them in force, he might be strong enough to overcome the Adept. Mornelithe Falconsbane's contempt of Ancar of Hardorn notwithstanding, the young King might very well have knowledge that would give him an edge even over someone like Mornelithe.
But watching and listening, both to the servants' gossip and to the questions that Ancar put to Falconsbane, dashed An'desha's hopes before they had a chance to grow too far. Ancar was just another sort as Falconsbane - younger, less steeped in depravity, with fewer horrific crimes to his account. But that was all too clearly not for lack of trying.
Ancar cared nothing for others, except to determine if and how they might be used to further his own ends. His only concern was for himself, his powers, and his pleasures. If he learned of An'desha's existence, he would only use that knowledge to get more of an edge over his captive. He might even betray An'desha's presence to the unwitting Adept in the very moment that he learned of it, if he thought it would gain him something. And he would do so without a second thought, destroying a soul as casually as any other man might eat a radish.
He had brief hopes again, when he learned of the existence of the mysterious woman rival in Ancar's life - how could a woman who was Ancar's rival be anything but Ancar's very opposite? But then Ancar's own descriptions destroyed the vision of a woman of integrity opposing the King and his henchmen. Even taking Ancar's words with a great deal of leaven, this Hulda was no more to be trusted than Ancar himself.
He learned far more than he cared to about her, nevertheless. Once he had admitted Hulda's existence and their former relationship, Ancar answered all of Falconsbane's questions with casual callousness, describing their relationship in appalling detail, and the things she had taught him, often by example, with a kind of nostalgia. And the woman was just as much a monster as her pupil - perhaps more, for Ancar had no knowledge of anything she might have done before she came into his father's employ. Seducing the young child she had been hired to teach and protect was the least of her excesses....
It was a horrible education for An'desha. His uncle had claimed that the so-called "civilized" people of the other lands were the real barbarians, and at the moment An'desha would vouch for that wholeheartedly. No Shin'a'in would ever sink to the depths that Ancar described, and as for Falconsbane -
No Shin'a'in would ever believe anyone would do what the Beast had done.
These people were all scum!
He longed, with an intensity that made him sick, for the clean sweep of the Dhorisha Plains and the simpler life of a herd guard. What matter if his kin were sometimes cruel, sometimes taunted him for being a halfbreed? What matter if he had been forced into the life of a shaman? He would never have had to experience any of this, never know that his body had done these things, had performed those acts. He would never have been forced to look into the depths of Falconsbane's soul and realize that no matter what he saw now, there was probably something much worse in the Adept's memory that he simply hadn't uncovered yet.
The most evil men in recent Shin'a'in history were those men who had slaughtered Clan Tale'sedrin, down to the last and littlest child - except for the famed Tarma shena Tale'sedrin who had declared blood-feud, been taken as Swordsworn, then tracked them down and eliminated them all. But compared to Mornelithe Falconsbane, all of the crimes of all of those men combined were a single poisonous weed in the poisoned lands of the Pelagir Hills, or a grain of sand in the glass-slagged crater that had in the long-distant past, become the Plains at the Hand of the Star-Eyed.
The young Shin'a'in huddled inside Falconsbane's mind - no, it is my mind - as the conversation with Ancar went on and on, trying to hold in his revulsion and mask his presence, and expecting at any moment to be discovered. And An'desha had never in his entire life felt quite so young, petrified with fear, and quite so helpless. Despite the protections the Avatars had taught him, if Falconsbane found him, he would have no way to prevent the Adept from crushing him out of all existence.
But somehow, those protections held. Either Falconsbane was not as all-powerful as he thought, or else the Avatars were more powerful than they claimed.
Ancar left at last, as Falconsbane's feigned weariness became real weariness. And when he dozed off in the chair, An'desha crept out of hiding, to stare at a candle flame and try to think out his meager options.
Ancar was repulsive, but an old Shin'a'in proverb held that anything could be used as a weapon in a case of desperation. You can kill a man who wishes to destroy you with a handful of maggots if you must. Could An'desha possibly deceive the King long enough to win himself free? I could reveal myself to Ancar as an ally, and think up some story that makes it look as if I have more power than I really do. Well, yes. That was a possibility. And if everything worked properly, he might get his body back if Ancar could overwhelm Falconsbane. But Ancar had no reason to trust An'desha, and every reason to want one more hold over the Adept. What did An'desha have to offer? The knowledge contained in Falconsbane's memory, assuming it was still there after Falconsbane was gone - yes, he did have that. But he had no practical experience as a mage; no idea how to handle all these energies. And truth to tell, he was terrified of them. If Ancar asked for proof of his power, what could An'desha offer? Not much. Nothing that would convince Ancar, who was a suspicious man and saw deception everywhere.
Well, what went for Ancar also went for the woman. More so, actually, since Ancar wanted Falconsbane to increase his own power, and the woman would naturally want to eliminate both of them once she discovered the conspiracy against her. He would need to offer nothing more than access to Falconsbane - he could turn the tables on both Ancar and Falconsbane, and reveal himself to this "Hulda." But she was an Adept as well, and she would be just as likely to use An'desha to destroy Falconsbane, then proceed to finish the job by ridding herself of An'desha. What did she need him for, after all? She had power of her own, and no fear of using it. And she was just as depraved as her former pupil. More; after all, she had schooled him in depravity.
There was a last possibility, as disgusting as it was. He could reveal his presence to Falconsbane, and strike a bargain with him. The "coercions" Falconsbane kept thinking about had been put on the Adept, not on An'desha. If Falconsbane cared to remain in a passive mode and simply instruct An'desha, the Shin'a'in might be able to use their powers to free both of them....
Yes, he could try to strike a bargain to that effect. Offer Falconsbane the way out of this gilded trap in return for simple survival; taking no more than he already had, a little corner of the Adept's mind.
Except that such a bargain would make him no better than Falconsbane; to know everything the creature had done and turn a blind eye to it in the hope of staying "alive" was as nauseating as anything Falconsbane himself had ever done. It would be a betrayal of all those Falconsbane had destroyed. Further, such a plan assumed Falconsbane would actually keep any bargain he made, and nothing of what An'desha knew of him gave any reassurance the Adept would do any such thing.
He felt tied into a hundred knots by conflicting emotions. Only one thing really seemed clear. None of these folk were worth helping. If any of them had ever done a single decent thing in all their lives, they had certainly take pains to insure it went undiscovered.
I must listen to the Avatars and remain quiet. That was still not only the best plan, it was the only plan. I must help the Avatars as they ask; I must hope they can help me. That is the only plan, the only decent course to take.
:Wise choice, little one.:Tre'valen's voice rang in his mind, so clearly that he glanced around, startled, looking for another physical presence in the room. But there was no one there; Tre'valen and Dawnfire rarely made physical manifestations since their first appearance. He understood why now; such things made a disturbance that could be sensed, if one were looking for it with the inner eye.
:Let the Falconsbane sleep,: the shaman-Avatar continued :Meet us upon the Moonpaths, where we cannot be overheard or overlooked.:
With relief, An'desha abandoned his hold on the body he and Falconsbane shared, and turned his focus in the direction Tre'valen had taught him, within and without. There was a moment of dizziness, a moment of darkness, and a moment in which he felt he was falling and flying at the same time. Then he found himself standing upon a patch of pristine white sand, in a world made of mist and light, and all that had transpired in the time it took to draw a quick breath.
Tre'valen and Dawnfire were already there, looking quite ordinary, actually, although they glowed with a soft, diffused inner light. It was easier to "see" them here; Tre'valen looked like any of the younger shaman of the Clans, as familiar as his horse or saddle. Lovely Dawnfire on the other hand was garbed in odd clothing that made her look like a slender birch tree wrapped in snow - her hair was long and as white as a snowdrift - and she was as exotic as he had imagined the Hawkbrothers to be when he had first run off to seek them. But her smile and her wink made her still enough like a young scout of the Shin'a'in that he felt comfortable around her.
Except when he looked directly into the eyes of either of them...for they shared the same eyes, eyes without pupil, iris, or white; eyes the same bright-spangled black of a starry night sky. The Eyes of the Warrior...and the single sign that they were truly Her creatures. Those eyes made him shiver with awe and not a little dread, and reminded him that whatever they had been, these two Avatars were not human anymore.
So he tried to avoid looking into their eyes at all; not at all difficult, really, since he tended to keep his own glance fixed firmly on his own clasped hands whenever he spoke with them on the Moonpaths. Strange, how his body here looked like the one he had worn before he left his Clan and home, and not like the strange half-beast creature that Mornelithe Falconsbane had twisted it into.
"We have a new teaching for you, An'desha," Tre'valen said matter-of-factly. "It should help you seal your control over Falconsbane's body so that when he sleeps you will not awaken him by moving the body about."
Even as he spoke, An'desha felt Dawnfire's mental "hand" brush the surface of his own mind, and he absorbed the lesson effortlessly. And he even managed to smile shyly up into those two pairs of unhuman eyes, in thanks.
He took all the time he needed to study the implanted memory, to examine it and walk its pathway until he was certain he could follow their lesson exactly. And it was a most welcome gift. Such an ability would make things easier for him, for if Falconsbane's healing body demanded food while he slept, or made other needs known, such things would eventually wake the Adept so that An'desha must quickly and quietly retreat into watchful hiding. Now he would be able to silence the needs of the body before Falconsbane woke, and that would give him more uninterrupted time in full control. It was only when Falconsbane slept soundly, for instance, that An'desha dared to walk the Moonpaths. He feared, and so had the Avatars warned, that if Falconsbane woke while An'desha was "absent," An'desha would not be able to rejoin his body without the Adept noticing that something was different.
"Be patient, An'desha," Tre'valen said, but in a voice full of sympathy and kindness. "We know how tempting it must be to try to find some other, quicker way to rid yourself of the beast. But truly, our way is the surest, and even it is uncertain. We give you only a chance, but it is a chance with honor. There would be much less honor in any of the other paths you have contemplated. None of these people are worth the backing, as you yourself thought, much less worth making even temporary allies of them. Even trying to deceive them would be fraught with both peril and dishonor."
He hung his head in embarrassment and a little shame. Tre'valen was right, of course. And it had been making a choice with no concern for honor that had gotten him here in the first place, a fact that Tre'valen kindly omitted to mention.
"If you are very, very careful," Dawnfire continued in her high, husky voice, "you will even have ample opportunity to undermine all of them. She knows; She has faith in your good heart. Remember the Black Riders."
He looked up again and nodded. The Swordsworn seldom miss their marks. The Leshy'a Kal'enedral, never. That was a Shin'a'in proverb as old as the Swordsworn themselves. And yet, in shooting at Falconsbane, ostensibly to kill, they had missed, and had left the body holding both An'desha and Falconsbane alive. Then the Black Riders had appeared, bringing gifts that Falconsbane had thought were for him, but were truly for An'desha - a tiny black horse, the kind given to a child on his birthday, the token that he was ready for his first real horse and would be permitted to pick out a foal to train on his own. And the black ring, the ring Tre'valen had told him was worn only by those sworn to the service of all four faces of the Goddess. An'desha now knew, as Falconsbane did not, that if the Adept had ever held the ring up to strong sunlight, the seemingly opaque black ring would show a fiery heart that contained every color of earth, air, sky and water, a fitting symbol for those sworn to every face of the Shin'a'in Goddess.
And then, after the Black Riders had shown their tokens, Tre'valen and Dawnfire had appeared.
They would not lie. They came to help him; She meant to help him save himself, if it could be done. He must not let this fear and uncertainty break him; must not let the filth of Falconsbane destroy his own soul and all his hopes. There was honor in the world, and kindness, and decency.
He must help those who brought those virtues to his aid, even if it meant that he -
He froze for a moment, as the thought ran on to its inescapable conclusion.
Even if it meant giving up his own chance at life and freedom.
There were things worse than death, after delving into Falconsbane's mind he knew that. He would be worse than a rabid animal if he chose his own survival over taking the opportunity to stop something like Falconsbane.
And this was a thought that would never have occurred to the "old" An'desha.
Old....He suddenly felt old, a thousand years old, and weary - and very frightened. But quite, quite sure of himself now.
A faintly-glowing hand touched his; it was joined by another. He looked up to see the Avatars standing one on either side of him, clasping their hands over the ones he had locked in front of himself. The warmth of their care and concern filled him; their friendship warmed the cold heart of him.
"Thank you, An'desha." That was all that Tre'valen had to say, but An'desha knew that the Avatar had read his internal struggle and his conclusion and approved. He looked down again, but this time it was with a glow of pride. Whatever else came of this - Her chosen servants had given him their own accolade.
"We did not wish to prompt you into that decision, but now that you have made it, we can be more open with you," Dawnfire told him. She took her hand from his, although the warmth that had filled him remained, and she cupped some of the mist that eddied about them in her hands. "Look here - " she continued, and the handful of mist glowed, and vague figures formed and sharpened within it. He recognized most of them, both from Falconsbane's memories and from stolen glimpses through Falconsbane's eyes.
Two young Hawkbrothers; one ruggedly handsome, though a trifle careworn, and one that he did not recognize, but who was so beautiful that his breath caught. The first was Falconsbane's old enemy, Darkwind k'Sheyna, the son of the Adept he had corrupted. The second -
"He is Firesong k'Treva, a Healing Adept," Dawnfire replied to his unvoiced thought. "He is an ally of yours, although neither of you knew it. It was he that came to the aid of k'Sheyna."
An odd feeling stole over him for a moment, as he stared at that flamboyantly beautiful face. He would like to be more than an ally with that one....
He shook his head dismissively as the two figures faded and two more replaced them. One also, he knew. The Outlander from Northern lands, the young woman whose potential Falconsbane desired to devour. Both dressed in white garments, and both with blue-eyed white horses.
"Elspeth and Skif, both what are called 'Heralds' out of Valdemar. The Heralds are Clan-allies to Tale'sedrin," Tre'valen added, in a decisive tone, and An'desha nodded. That was all he needed. Anyone who had won acceptance of any of the Clans had won it from all. And if they were Clan-allies, An'desha was honor-bound to assist them.
Honor. There it was again. It became easier to understand when one lived it, rather than looking at it from outside.
A single figure took their place, one that could have been a fragile, feminine version of Falconsbane; a young woman with a feline cast to her features, carrying a sword. And, oh, he knew this one from many, many of his worst moments, both within Falconsbane's memories and as unwilling witness to atrocity. "Nyara," he said, biting off the word. His gorge rose at the sight of her, but not because she repulsed him but because what had been done to her by her own father repulsed him.
She is my "daughter" as well, because the body that sired her is mine - but I had nothing to do with it. I did not torture her mind and body. And yet her blood is mine, she is of outClan and Shin'a'in breeding as I am. How much responsibility do I have to her? It was not the first time he had asked himself that question, but it was the first time he had felt there was any chance he could do something about the answer.
It was something he would have to think about for a long time. If he had felt old before, he now felt terribly young. His body might be over half a century old, but he often felt as if he were still the boy who had run from his Clan and his responsibilities. His "life," such as it was, had been lived in moments and glimpses.
"Yes," Dawnfire replied, "and free of her father. You would find her willing to aid you to the end of her powers. She has a score to settle with Falconsbane."
Lastly, two other creatures crowded the first out of the mist. Gryphons - and Falconsbane harbored a hatred for gryphons that was quite, quite insane, but these two in particular were apt to trigger rages, for they had eluded and defeated him time and time again, and he would likely do anything for a chance to destroy them.
"Treyvan and Hydona, and you would find them as apt to your aid as Nyara," said Tre'valen. "They have as much to call Falconsbane to account for as Nyara does. He violated their young, among other things."
Dawnfire opened her hands and the mist flowed away, losing its colors and dispersing into the starlight that surrounded them.
"These are your allies, An'desha," Dawnfire said, her face grave and her night-starred eyes looking somewhere beyond him. In that moment she looked like a beautiful but impassive statue. "They approach this land even now, coming to the land of Ancar's enemies, the land of Valdemar."
An'desha shook his head, puzzled. How could this mean anything to his situation?
"Ancar wars upon Valdemar and plans another attempt to crush them even now. This is what he wishes Falconsbane's powers and teachings for, since he has been unable to defeat their defenses in the past." Tre'valen also looked somewhere beyond An'desha, and he was just as statuelike. "He wishes to become a great emperor, a lord of many kingdoms, but Valdemar stands in his way, by an increasingly lesser margin. These folk we have shown you come to help defend Elspeth's land. We will speak to them, through an intermediary that they trust, letting them know that Falconsbane has come to roost here."
An'desha considered that for a moment, seeing something of what their reaction might be to that unwelcome information. "They will know that Falconsbane is their chiefest enemy. So - what am I to do in all of this? What is it that I can do for them that will help them defeat Ancar and Falconsbane? I can do nothing to prevent him from helping Ancar if he chooses."
"Watch," Dawnfire said immediately. "Delve the depths of Falconsbane's memories. Learn all you can of him and of Ancar and Hulda and their plans. We will pass this on as well. You will be the spy that no one can possibly detect; the ideal agent, who is even privy to thoughts. Somewhere, in everything that you learn, there will be a way for your allies to defeat not only Ancar, but Falconsbane as well."
But that did not necessarily mean that they would be able to help him...and he noticed a curious omission. Neither Dawnfire nor Tre'valen had said anything about mentioning his existence to these "allies"....
And, feeling a little alarmed, he said so. "You say nothing of me - "
Now Tre'valen looked away, and it was Dawnfire who said, with a peculiar expression of mingled apology and determination, "We cannot tell them of your existence, although we will inform the intermediary, who suspects it already. If we let the others know that you live in Falconsbane's body, they might hesitate to - "
Here she broke off, and An'desha continued, bleakly, with the inescapable. "They might hesitate if it becomes necessary to slay Falconsbane, even if there is no other choice. Is that what you wished to say?"
"The intermediary will know," Tre'valen pointed out, but a little hesitantly. "She can judge best if they should know as well...but at the moment, she thinks not."
She thought not, hmm? An'desha pondered that for a moment. How likely was it that these "allies" would come face-to-face with Falconsbane?
But at least three of them were Adepts. When was it necessary for an Adept to come face-to-face with an enemy in order to attack him?
"An'desha, we pledged you that we would do our best to free you and save you. We did not mean to 'free you and save you' by slaying you," Dawnfire said, quickly. "You know we cannot lie to you in this. You have already accepted the risk, have you not?"
He sighed. He had. And word once given could not be taken back without becoming an oath-breaker. They were quite right, and besides, what choice did he have? He either faced a lifetime - presumably a long one - of being a prisoner in his own body, forced to watch Falconsbane commit his atrocities and being unable to do anything to prevent them, or he could retreat into his "safe haven" in Falconsbane's mind, make himself blind and deaf to all that passed while Falconsbane was awake, and live a kind of prison existence in which he would still know what Falconsbane was doing, even if he refused to actually see it.
Neither was any kind of a life; a living hell was more like it. He had a chance now....
And he certainly did not want Falconsbane making free with his body anymore. The creature must be stopped.
"No matter what happens, we will be with you," Tre'valen said softly.
That decided him. At least his loneliness and isolation were at an end. These two were friends already; it would be no bad thing to come to an ending, if it were in the company of true friends.
"Well, then," he said, steeling himself against the horrid memories he must once again face in order to pass the information on to his protectors. "I must begin my part of the bargain. Here is what I have learned of Ancar...."
It took a surprisingly short time to relate, really. It was astonishing how simply sordid those terrible acts Ancar had recited became, when they were told, not to an avid audience of Mornelithe Falconsbane, but to the impassive witnesses of the two Avatars. They seemed neither disturbed nor impressed; they simply nodded from time to time as if making special note of some point. He added his impressions of what Falconsbane had thought, once he came to the end of that recitation. It had not been flattering, for although Ancar had done his best to shock the Adept, Mornelithe had not been impressed either. He had, in fact, considered Ancar to be little more than a yapping pup, barking his importance to an old, bored dragon.
"Things could be worse," Dawnfire commented, when he came to the end of the recitation. "Falconsbane is still far more interested in regaining control of himself and gaining control of the situation than he is in helping Ancar. He does not know that the Valdemarans are returning to their home, so his thirst for revenge has not yet been awakened against Valdemar. And I suspect he will be investigating this woman Hulda as a possible ally against Ancar, simply because he is not the kind of creature to leave any opportunity without at least looking into it. And meanwhile, Ancar has learned nothing useful from him, which is a good thing, and he intends to withhold real information for as long as possible, which is even better."
An'desha sighed. "Better than you know. The things that Falconsbane has done to gain his powers - "
He shuddered without really intending to. Tre'valen touched his shoulder with sympathy. "I can soften those memories, if you wish," he said quietly. "Make them less - immediate. Give you some detachment."
"Give you the real sense that they are past, and there is nothing that you can do to help or hinder now - but that you can learn from them to prevent such things in the future," Dawnfire added, when he looked up in hope. "You must never forget that those terrible things were done to other living creatures, An'desha. When those poor victims become only icons, when they lose their power to move you, you will have lost something of your soul."
"I will only see to it that there is that distance," Tre'valen said, with a glance at Dawnfire as if he was amused by her preaching. "Your heart is sound, An'desha, and I have no fear that the plight of others will ever cease to move you. If that is what you want - "
"Please!" he cried, and with a touch, some of the feeling of sickness left him, and some of the feeling of having been rolled in filth until he would never be rid of the taste and smell and feel of it.
It was a blessed, blessed relief. He almost felt clean again, and his nausea subsided completely. Now those memories he had stolen from the Adept were at one remove...as if they were things from very distant childhood, clear, but without the terrible immediacy.
"As if they belonged to someone else, and not to you," Tre'valen said, with a slight smile. "Which they properly do, An'desha. The problem is that they come from your mind, and not Falconsbane's, and that is what made it seem to you as if they were yours."
He sighed, and closed his eyes. "Can you - " he began, and then realized that Tre'valen had already shown him what he needed to do to put any new memories at the same distance.
"You are a good pupil, An'desha," Dawnfire said, a bare hint of teasing in her voice. "You are a credit to your teachers."
He ducked his head shyly, but before he could reply, an internal tug warned him that he must return to the body he and Falconsbane shared before the Adept awakened.
The others understood without a word; they both touched him again, briefly, filling him with that incredible warmth and caring, and then they were gone.
And he closed his eyes, and sought without, and within -
And opened the very physical eyes of Mornelithe Falconsbane, who still slept in his heavily-cushioned chair. Without even consciously thinking of doing so, he had implemented the new lesson even as he returned to the body. Now he was very much in control, although he must make certain that he did nothing abruptly, or made any motion or sound that might wake the Adept.
Still, Falconsbane slept very heavily - and people often walked, talked, and did many other things in their sleep without awakening. An'desha should at least have a limited freedom.
For the first time in years, he had full command of all of his body. He now wore it, rather than being carried by it as a kind of invisible passenger. Senses seemed much sharper now; he became aware of vague aches and pains, of the fact that he was painfully thin, most of the body's resources having been devoured in that terrible time between the Gates. Small wonder Falconsbane ate much, slept much, and tired easily!
The warning that had brought him back was thirst; alive and growing quickly. Moving slowly and carefully, he reached out for the watered wine on the table beside him, poured himself a goblet, and drank it down. He then settled back again with a feeling of triumph. He had done that, not Falconsbane - and for the first time, he had done so without feeling Falconsbane would wake while he moved!
An'desha marveled at the feel of the goblet in his hands - his hands, at last, his arms and body. And now, he had many, many things to think about. He did not feel up to another swim in the cesspool of Falconsbane's memories. Not now.
Later, when Falconsbane truly slept; that would be time enough. But for now - now he had another task in front of him. He had felt very young, a few moments ago. He had been very young, a few moments ago.
It was time, finally, to grow up.
By his own will.
Elspeth's head felt full-to-bursting, the way it had when she first began learning mage-craft from Need and Darkwind. Or, for that matter, the way it used to feel back when she was still a Herald-trainee, and had been cramming information on laws and customs into her memory as quickly as she could. She had a wealth of information bubbling like a teapot in her mind, and she still hadn't sorted it out yet. But she would; she would. It was all a matter of time.
For now, the best thing was to make as simple a plan as possible and go from there - knowing that even simple plans could go awry. First we go through the Gate, then Vanyel dispels his protections on Valdemar so that mages can use magic without going mad, then we pelt for Haven as fast as we can. Seems simple enough. But Elspeth was not inclined to think it would stay simple for very long. There were too many things that could complicate their situation.
Just after the vrondi-watch is dispelled - that's when Valdemar will be at its most vulnerable. I'd better ask Vanyel if he can make the eastern border protections go down last.
But risk was part of life. She went through some other things that would be trouble. Communication, for one. She was passing plans on to Gwena, who relayed them to Rolan, who presumably told Talia - a complicated chain in which there were any number of chances for a break in that communication.
They were to return to the Ashkevron estate. Right there, possible problems arose.
Supposedly there were already two Heralds waiting for them at the Ashkevron family manor, who supposedly knew everything that Elspeth had passed on to Gwena and Rolan. They were expecting the Gate, were to have warned the family what was coming.
But just how much were the Heralds really told, how much did they understand, and how much were they able to get the Ashkevrons to believe?
Even if they knew all about the Gate, they might not understand what it was. And as for the Ashkevrons believing in magic - that in itself was problematic. Elspeth had on occasion crossed horns with some of the stubborn Ashkevron human oxen, and she knew very well that having been warned and actually doing something about it were two different things.
They were still horse breeders, something that came as no real surprise to Vanyel when she had mentioned it :They always have been rather set in tradition,: was all he had said. He called it "tradition," but she and the Queen had another thing or two to call it, when Ashkevrons showed up at court to protest some edict or other simply because "We've never done it that way, and we've never had a problem."
Whether it was sticking younglings with needles dipped in cowpox sores to prevent the Great Pox, or creating a common grazing ground for those folk with single livestock (so that the beasts were not inclined to break free of their tiny yards and roam off to larger and presumably greener pastures), if it was something new and different, the Ashkevrons usually opposed it. Most of them stayed on or near the family property even after marriage, although they were no longer as prolific as they had been in Vanyel's day. Most of them were stolid and stubborn, and had to be shown why something worked, in detail, and with exhaustive explanations, before they would return home to implement it.
There were no Heralds in this generation of Ashkevrons, although there were two Ashkevron officers in the Guard, one apprentice Bard, and one very ancient Healer. And although the stolid Ashkevrons were always mystified that anyone would ever want to leave home, thanks to Vanyel, it was now a tradition (and so, unquestioned) that if you didn't feel that you fit in, you left.
Still, Elspeth could just imagine what the two Heralds that had been dragged off their circuits to meet them had gone through, trying to explain to the Ashkevrons just what, exactly, was going to happen. Most likely they themselves didn't even understand it!
The brown-haired, brown-eyed, huskily-built current Lord would blink in puzzlement and say, "You say they're gonna be a-comin' through the chapel door? How in Havens they get in there?" And the Herald in question would have to scratch his head and answer that he really didn't know how, but that they were really going to come through that door -
And then, when the Gate opened -
Gods, it would be a royal mess...she only hoped that everyone would at least keep clear long enough for the Companions to get through. And then the gryphons, both young and old....
Just thinking about what could go wrong gave Elspeth a headache. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temple, then opened them again to meet Darkwind's concerned glance. She smiled slightly, and he squeezed her hand in reassurance.
Ready or not, it was all about to become moot. They gathered once again in the clearing in front of the cave-mouth that had first served as their portal to Vanyel's forest - or his current body, it could be argued. Vanyel's image stood to one side of the Gate he was creating, so thinned and tenuous that he looked like nothing more than a human-shaped wisp of mist. Almost all of his power was going into the building of this Gate - a Gate to a place so far away that Firesong admitted he didn't think anyone had the temerity to try such a distance. The only feat that dwarfed it was the one that had brought them here, over an even longer distance. But the energy forming that Gate had come from two Adepts, Vanyel and Firesong; this was coming from Vanyel alone.
Then again, Vanyel had resources no merely human mage could command....
The cave-mouth darkened, blackened - and just as suddenly, gave out on a stone-walled corridor, lit with oil lanterns, filled with strange people gaping in slack-jawed amazement.
"It's up! Go now!" Firesong shouted. Gwena and Cymry didn't need any urging. They all knew that the strain of this undertaking, even on a being such as Vanyel, was tremendous; he would only be able to hold the Gate open for a limited time.
The Companions bolted across the portal, hooves kicking up great clods of earth from the soft turf. Elspeth and Skif were right on their heels, followed by Darkwind and Firesong with their bondbirds clinging to their shoulders for dear life. Then came Nyara, Firesong's dyheli, and Rris, and bringing up the rear, the four gryphons.
Gwena and Cymry simply kept moving as they passed through, recovering from the disorientation of Gating much more quickly than Elspeth could. Sound did not travel across the barrier of the Gate, and as Elspeth dove through, she saw mouths moving as if people were shouting, although there was nothing to hear.
She passed into blackness, and through that moment of extreme dizziness that made her feel as if she was falling forever and would never touch the ground. There was nothing to concentrate on; no contact even with her own body. She could be screaming and waving her arms around, and she would never know - and if something went wrong with the Gate, wouldn't she be left that way forever?
But her momentum carried her forward, out of the complete silence of the Void and into pandemonium. People shouted, hooves clattered on the stone of the corridor, and all of it echoed so much it made all the sounds into meaningless noise. She glanced around, her eyes still blurred, trying to make sense out of the confusion.
She needn't have bothered. By the time she and Darkwind staggered onto the stone of the Ashkevron corridor and shook their heads clear, the Companions had shoved everyone out of the way and had made enough room even for the gryphons.
Even so, there wasn't a lot of room. There was a kind of anteroom in front of the chapel door, and that was what the Companions had cleared. Now there was a horde of people jammed into the corridor itself, beyond the anteroom, all of them jabbering. A strange, faintly unpleasant smell struck Elspeth's nostrils, and she sneezed, wondering what the odd, heavy odor was. Then she remembered; it was fish oil, used for lanterns. She hadn't had fish oil lamps inflicted on her for nearly two years - no wonder the smell made her sneeze!
It appeared that their arrival had been deemed something of a carnival, and the Ashkevrons were always prone to pounce on an excuse to see a marvel. Everyone on the estate had turned out to see just what was supposed to happen.
Or at least, that was the way it seemed to Elspeth. There were three Heralds in the front of the mob, their Whites gleaming in the light from the lanterns, and not the two that she had been told would be here. She didn't recognize any of them, not that she necessarily would; Field Heralds seldom came to Haven, and when they did, they would only be one more stranger in Whites to her. But she had hoped that at least one would be a friend; Jeri or Sherril, even Kero. Her heart sank a little, and she hoped she didn't show her disappointment.
Crowded behind the three Heralds were what appeared to be a hundred other people. All three tried to get past Gwena for what she assumed was a greeting; certainly the relief on their faces spoke volumes for their feelings. Even if her feelings were mixed, theirs certainly were not!
But at that moment, Darkwind and Firesong came stumbling through - then, before anyone could blink, Nyara, the dyheli and Rris -
And then the gryphons, plunging through the Gate as if they were charging an enemy line, then skidding to a halt just past the threshold.
And the crowd went insane with panic.
A crash of thunder that shook the stones under her drowned out most of the screams, but not all, by any means.
I guess someone forgot to tell them about Treyvan and Hydona -
Thunder faded, but not the shrieks. People stared for a moment, then, like cattle, bolted in the direction of freedom and safety.
That was all she had time to think, before the Ashkevron clan snatched up children, turned tail, and fled the scene, leaving behind three white-faced Heralds to guard their retreating backs.
Crashing thunder covered the sound of their retreat for the most part. All Elspeth could do was stand there, torn between laughter and hysteria.
Meanwhile the three Heralds were apparently convinced they were all about to die at the claws of the strange beasts. All three groped after weapons they weren't wearing, as people shoved and stumbled behind them and thunder crashed again.
Impasse. They were unarmed, but the gryphons weren't moving. And at this point, they must have been wondering why the two Companions didn't do anything! The Heralds stared at the gryphons, paralyzed with indecision, as the Gate vanished behind the winged apparitions, and another blast of thunder deafened them all for a moment.
No one moved.
The gryphons stared back. Elspeth was about to say something to break the deadlock - then stopped herself. Treyvan was an envoy. Let him deal with the situation. If she intervened now, it might look as if he needed her intervention. If the Heralds had been armed, it would have been a different story -
In the silence that followed the thunder, Treyvan opened his beak and the three Heralds stepped back a pace as if they expected him to charge them.
"I take it we werrre not exssssspected?" he said, in clear, if heavily accented, Valdemaran.
Eventually, everything was sorted out as the thunderstorm rolled on outside. The Heralds - Cavil, Shion, and Lisha - recovered from their terror very quickly in the face of Treyvan's civilized politeness and sunny charm. As she had expected, he soon had the situation under control, and even had the three Heralds laughing weakly at their own fear.
The antechamber and hallways were too crowded a venue for any kind of discussion, however. As soon as the atmosphere settled for a moment, Elspeth suggested they all move into the chapel.
Like most private chapels, this one was devoid of permanent seats and much in the way of decoration. It was basically a simple stone-walled room, empty at this moment, with a stone altar at one end. More lanterns lit it, but these were candle lamps rather than the fish oil, and the honey scent of beeswax was a great deal easier on Elspeth's nose than the odoriferous oil.
Gwena and Cymry picked their way carefully over the stone floor, leading the way, followed by the dyheli. They took places near the altar. The bondbirds flew up to the rafters and began a vigorous preening, oblivious to whatever their bondmates were up to for the moment. And the gryphons herded the young ones into a window alcove that no longer looked out on the outside, as evidenced by the lack of glazing and the view of another fish oil lamp lighting yet another corridor.
At that point, Lord Ashkevron reappeared, armed to the teeth and wearing a hastily-donned, antique breastplate. Elspeth would have laughed if she had not been so amazed at his temerity.
She ran quickly to the front of the room, placing herself between him and the gryphons.
"My Lord!" she shouted, pausing for thunder to die down. "My Lord, there is no danger! These are guests of Valdemar. You were supposed to have been warned they were coming!"
His sword point, held in defensive posture, wavered for a moment, then dropped. He raised the visor of his helm.
"The hell you say!" he exclaimed, regarding the gryphons in puzzlement.
She hastened to assure him that there was no danger, and briefly explained the situation.
He in his turn went cautiously to the doorway and peered in.
Treyvan looked up at just that moment. "Hel-lo," he said, in a voice that sounded friendly to Elspeth - although who knew how it sounded to Lord Ashkevron. "May we impossse upon your hossspitality and rrremain herrre, good sirrr? I fearrr we would frrrighten yourrr horrrsesss if we went nearrr yourrr ssstablesss. I would not rrrisssk panic to the horsssesss."
That was enough for Lord Ashkevron; whatever this monster was, it had just demonstrated that it cared not to disturb his precious horseflesh. The gryphons were invited to take over the chapel.
He went off to start collecting the terrified members of his household and explain to them that these were not monsters - or at least, these were monsters that were on the side of Valdemar. Lisha wasted no time in seizing on Elspeth and filling her ears with complaints about how little preparation they'd had.
That was when Elspeth discovered that her worries had been dead on the mark. No one had said anything about the gryphons. In fact, no one had told these three that anyone but Skif and Elspeth were going to arrive - and certainly those assigning them to this task had not been able to explain the manner of Elspeth's arrival in any way the three Heralds were able to understand.
Meanwhile, the storm raged outside, its fury no doubt further frightening everyone who had fled, who must be certain that in the howling wind they heard the hungry cries of man-eating monsters. Finally Elspeth called a halt to further explanations until they helped Lord Ashkevron collect and calm his household.
It took candlemarks to soothe the nerves of the terrified
Ashkevrons, who had been certain that they had just witnessed terrible monsters following their Heir - that she and Skif had, in fact, been fleeing them when they dashed across the threshold of the Gate. The poor folk had been certain that these monsters came from whatever strange place she had been, and were going to eat them all alive as soon as they caught and devoured the Heralds. People had to be hunted out and reassured, one by one; they had fled to every corner of the manor, hiding under beds and behind furniture, in closets and attics, and even cowering in the cellars. Only the storm outside, pouring so hard that it was impossible to see, had kept them from fleeing the building altogether.
Even now, a good half of the inhabitants were still walking softly and fearfully, expecting at any moment that the monsters would show their true nature. Nothing Lord Ashkevron or any of the Heralds could say would convince them otherwise.
Predictably, it was the gryphlets who eventually won over the rest. Lytha and Jerven had begun a game of pounce-and-wrestle as soon as they were settled, including Darkwind in their fun. There was nothing even remotely threatening in their kittenish play, and they soon had Lord Jehan Ashkevron convulsed with laughter. Now those who dared the chapel soon found themselves engaged in cheerful conversation with one or the other of the adults, while the youngsters continued to entertain themselves and anyone else watching them.
With that crisis out of the way, Elspeth and Skif went back to finding out just how things stood - both here, and in the Kingdom as a whole. She could quite cheerfully have shot whoever had made that particular set of omissions. Fortunately, after the gryphons, even the dyheli and Nyara didn't seem to cause too much consternation. Rris was simply assumed to be a very large dog, and neither he nor Elspeth saw any reason to enlighten anyone on that score - although his occasionally acidic comments had her choking down laughter she would have been hard put to explain if anyone had noticed.
By the time everyone had been found and calmed, and all misunderstandings sorted out, it was well into night.
Elspeth was tired, hungry, and in no mood to deal with anything other than a meal and a warm bed.
"But like it or not," she said to Darkwind - in Tayledras, so that no one would overhear and be offended - "I'm back at home, which means work, lots of it, starting this very moment. You don't have to sit through this if you don't want to, but I have to have a meeting with these Heralds. If they didn't get the message about the gryphons, there are probably a hundred equally important messages we haven't gotten."
"I came to help," Darkwind said softly, the lines of worry in his face softened by the light from the candle-lamps. "If you do not object to my presence."
Object? "Not likely," she said with gratitude. "You probably won't understand half of what they say, but you should get the sense of it all if you link with my mind."
Link with my mind - I never thought I would ever say that to anyone, I never thought I would be willing to. She smiled at him, a little shyly. She was so used to linking with him now that it never even caused her a moment of uneasiness; she did it as easily as she opened her thoughts to Gwena.
He smiled, and touched her hand lightly. She gave him a slow wink, then paused for a half breath to settle her thoughts. After speaking only Tayledras for so long, it seemed odd to speak her own tongue again; the words felt strange in her mouth.
Darkwind waited as she attempted to assume an air of authority. At her nod, he followed, as she went right to the corner to interrupt the low-voiced conversation all three Heralds were having with Lord Jehan.
The Heralds started and looked guilty as she cleared her throat. She was struck, at that moment, by how plain and severe their Whites looked, and spared a flicker of thought to wonder if she and Skif looked as outlandish and exotic to them as they looked plain to her.
Although the three Heralds seemed embarrassed - which meant that they had probably been discussing her - Sir Jehan, evidently, was just as blunt and forthright as any of his line, and turned to her immediately.
He was a brown and blocky man; brown eyes, hair, and beard, with a square face and a square build, all of it muscle. He looked nothing like Vanyel. She remembered something her mother had said once, though: "The Ashkevron look usually breeds true, and when it doesn't, the poor child generally runs off to Haven!"
"Cavil was just saying that no one told him that anyone was coming except you and the other Herald," he said, with a hearty chuckle. "He keeps insisting that I ought to complain to someone. Can't understand why. I know how it is. You tell someone, 'I'm coming and bringing an entourage of a hundred,' he tells the next fellow, 'Jehan's bringing an escort,' it keeps getting pared down until your host thinks you're only bringin' a couple of servants, and when you show up with your hundred, there's no place to put 'em all." He shrugged. "It happens. Happens all the time, and no one to blame for it,"
She sighed with relief. There was one good thing about dealing with people like Jehan; once they calmed down, they were usually able to take anything in stride, from gryphons in their chapels to Gates in their doorways.
"Thank you for being so understanding," she said. "Could I steal Cavil and the others from you for a little? There's a great deal I have to catch up on."
"Oh, no fear, no fear," Jehan replied affably. "I have to go round up the aunties again and let 'em know they aren't goin' to be eaten in their beds." He grinned hugely, showing very white teeth in a very dark beard, then added. "I never believed 'em when they all said you were dead, Lady. Kept telling 'em they were actin' like a bunch of silly hens, flutterin' around over nothing."
And with that odd comment, he sketched a bow and took his leave.
Elspeth turned to Herald Cavil, who looked profoundly embarrassed. He was an older man, thin and harried-looking, with brown hair going gray at the temples. She had a feeling that after today, there would be a lot more gray there. "Just what in Havens was that all about?" she demanded. "About my being dead, I mean."
He flushed; his cheeks turned a brilliant crimson. "Some of what we need to brief you on, my lady," he said, quickly, while the other two Heralds nodded. "There have been rumors over the last several months that you were dead and the Council was trying to conceal that fact. Nothing the Queen or Circle could say or do seemed to calm the alarm. We need to proceed back to Haven at all speed, and as openly as possible - "
"We aren't going to be able to proceed quietly with this menagerie!" she pointed out, interrupting him. "But apparently, that's going to be all to the good, from what you're saying. The more people that see me, the better, right?" She shook her head for a moment, and caught Darkwind's eye. He was rather amused by something, although she couldn't imagine what. Perhaps it was the notion of trying to conceal the gryphons.
As what? Statuary?
"Of course, with four gryphons along, I wonder if anyone is going to notice me!" she added with a tired smile.
"There is this," Darkwind put in, speaking slowly in his careful, accented Valdemaran. "The notion of you in company with gryphons is so strange that no one would make it up; it is so strange it must be believed."
"You don't intend to bring those creatures to Haven!" Cavil exclaimed without thinking.
She started to snap; caught herself, and answered instead, quietly and calmly, "Treyvan and Hydona are not only envoys from the Tayledras and Kaled'a'in, they are mages in their own right. They have offered to teach any Herald with Mage-Gift. Yes, Mage-Gift. They can do that best at Haven, and they are needed there. I would be doing everyone a disservice if I insisted they remain here until they were sent for."
The three Heralds exchanged hasty glances, and the one called Shion said, cautiously, "But what of the rest? The other - ah - people?"
A sidelong glance told her that Shion meant Nyara, but she deliberately chose to take her literally.
"Darkwind and Firesong are Tayledras Adepts, and they are just as badly needed as the gryphons, if not more so," she replied, "And as for the others, Nyara is Skif's lady, and the dyheli and Rris are envoys from their respective peoples. Everyone with me is either a representative of a potential ally, or someone who is practiced in mage-craft and is willing to teach."
At the startled looks she got, she could not repress a chuckle. "It's a strange world out there, my friends," she added. "You can't assume that something that looks like an animal isn't an intelligent person - or that something that looks human is more than a beast. Havens, you should know that from Court duty."
Cavil shook his head, biting his lip in what was obviously a nervous habit. "Lady, this is the single most confusing day of my life," he said at last, with honest bewilderment.
He glanced at the single window in the chapel that still faced the open sky. It was made of thick glass that allowed little view, but enough to show that outside it was black night - except when lightning glared across the sky, turning the window into a patch of white. Obviously the storm had not abated in the least since they had arrived. Here inside thick stone walls, most of the fury of the storm was muffled, but it might very well be the worst storm Elspeth had ever seen.
"It is too late to travel tonight," Cavil said reluctantly. "But in the morning, we must be off. We have taken more time than I like as it is."
That took her a little aback. "In this storm?" she exclaimed without thinking. "The way it's raining, it'll still be going strong in the morning! Can't we wait until it clears, at least?"
Herald Lisha sighed. "It probably won't clear, not for two days at least," she told Elspeth. "Not that I'm a weather-witch or anything, but the weather all over Valdemar has been rotten this year. It got bad around Midwinter, when everyone got hit with that headache, and right before you people popped out of that doorway this storm just blew up out of nowhere. I've never seen anything like it, and I'm not exactly young."
"No one knows what is causing this," Cavil said glumly, "although many people blame Ancar, and a great many more are convinced he has somehow learned to turn the very weather against us. Lisha understates the case, Lady Elspeth. The weather has been simply hellish."
Elspeth noticed that Firesong had been listening intently to this entire conversation, and decided to invite him in on it. "Cavil says the weather has been hellish, that this storm is just one example," she called over to him. He took that as an invitation, and stalked gracefully toward them, his robes flowing about him in a way that made Lisha smile at him appreciatively. "Cavil, Lisha, Shion, this is Firesong k'Treva, another Adept. Firesong, they think Ancar is to blame for the state of the weather. Is this something we need to warn Haven about? Have you any ideas?"
He nodded a greeting to each of the Heralds before replying.
"Of course the weather has been hellish," he said matter-of-factly while Elspeth translated. He understood Valdemaran far better than he could speak it. "There has been a disturbance in the magical currents here, and that always makes the weather act up, unless someone is working to balance it. Since you have no weather-wizards and earth-witches working to rebalance the weather, it will continue to be bad."
Lisha's long face was puzzled, Shion's round one thoughtful, but Cavil brightened. "You mean Ancar isn't to blame?"
"In a sense, but it was not deliberate," Firesong explained. He held up a finger. "First - that moment when all of you were struck with that blinding headache - that was when a powerful packet of energy was flung up here and linked to a physical object in your chief city. That was meant entirely to help you, and indeed you will need it, but it also created great disturbances in the natural order of magic in this land. Weather is influenced by these energy patterns, and so the weather began to turn awry. Now, outside of your land, this Ancar has been mucking about with magic as well, and I suspect without any safeguards at all. That will also stir things up. The forces he has been meddling with are powerful ones, and this has had an effect on the weather over both your lands."
Lisha had the look of a hunter on the track of game. She leaned forward a little. "So what is basically going on is that magic has been like someone rowing across a pond - while the boat is getting from here to there, the rower creates waves and eddies, whether or not he knows it. He maybe stirs up muck from the bottom if he digs his oars in too deep. Yes?"
Firesong's eyes darted from Lisha's face to Elspeth's as she translated, for Lisha had spoken far too quickly for him to understand her. He laughed when Elspeth was done, and nodded vigorously. "Exactly so, and an excellent analogy. Now - we have just opened and closed a Gate in the midst of all this instability, and that has only made things worse. In fact, in this case, it has turned what would have been only a minor storm into a tempest." He shrugged. "We do not have these problems, because all Vales have what you call Journeymen and Apprentices balancing the forces while Masters and Adepts work, or doing specific weather-controlling spells to avoid this kind of mess."
He took on a "lecturing" tone, and he might well have gone on in this vein for some time, except that he caught sight of Elspeth's expression. She was directing a rather accusatory glare at him, Darkwind, and Treyvan.
"Why didn't you tell me we'd be doing this to Valdemar?" she demanded, as Firesong broke off, and the three Heralds watched in bewilderment, unable to follow what was going on since she had switched to Tayledras. "Why didn't any of you let me know?"
Firesong shrugged, and crystals braided into his hair reflected flashes of lightning from outside.
"It would have done you no good to know," he pointed out. "What would you have been able to do about it? Nothing. You were a great distance away. Your people have no weather-workers, and until that barrier comes down, you will have none coming in. There was no point in mentioning it."
Shion cleared her throat, her round face telling of her puzzlement and curiosity eloquently. "Please," she said, "What are you talking about?"
"The weather," she replied, then took pity on her and gave her a quick translation.
"You mean," she said at last, "It really is possible to do something other than complain about the weather?"
She smiled and nodded. "Eventually, we will. But right now, the trouble is that all this wonderful new magic is bringing killer storms down on our own heads."
"Ke'chara, you must think of the other side of this stone," Darkwind put in, speaking again in Valdemaran. "Ancar is getting this weather - ah - in the teeth. And he is getting it as much as we; it must be at least as much of a hindrance. Consider how much magic he works, and completely without safeguards."
He sounded positively cheerful about it. Elspeth couldn't be quite that cheerful, thinking of all the innocent folk who were suffering much more from the wicked weather than Ancar was. But still, it was rather comforting to think that some of Ancar's chickens at least were coming home to roost.
"Oh, quite," Firesong said, just as cheerfully, when Elspeth had finished translating. "In actual fact, I would be much surprised if the effect was not a great deal worse over there in his land. He, after all, is the one who has been working the most magic - and it is he and his mages who also care little for the balances of things."
At Lisha's ironic nod of agreement, Firesong sighed, and shook his head a little. "On reflection, I fear that I will have a great deal of work ahead of me, once the current troubles are settled."
Current troubles - as if the war with Ancar wasn't much more complicated than a brushIire.
"It's going to take a lot to 'settle' Ancar," Lisha replied, with heavy irony. "I don't trust the current stalemate, and neither does anyone else in this Kingdom. You'll have your hands full of more than weather before you're here long."
Mornelithe Falconsbane stood in the window of his suite, with the shutters flung open wide and a cold wind whipping his hair about his head. He scowled and watched a night-black storm walking toward his "host's" castle on a thousand legs of lightning. As it neared, the light faded and thunder growled a warning of things to come. The wind picked up and sent the shutters to either side of him crashing against the wall, sending dust and the heavy scent of cold rain into his face. He crossed his arms and watched the storm racing over the empty fields beyond the city walls, lightning licking down and striking the earth for every beat of his heart. This would be a terrible and powerful storm; before it was over, crops would be beaten down in the fields, and many of those fields would lie under water.
He had expected nothing less, given what he already knew.
He waited until the last possible moment before closing windows and shutters against the winds of fury; they howled as if in frustration and lashed at the closed shutters with whips of rain. But the shutters were stoutly built. All the storm could accomplish was to rattle the thick glass of the windows behind them.
Thunder did more than rattle the glass; it shook the palace to the cellars, making all the stones in the walls tremble. Falconsbane felt the vibration under his feet as he turned and walked back to the chair he had abandoned at the first hint of the coming storm.
This was the fourth such storm in the last week. Two of the four had brought little rain, but had sent whirlwinds down out of the clouds and hail to damage roofs and break the glass in windows. Falconsbane had seen one of the whirlwinds firsthand, as it had dropped down out of a black cloud, writhing like a thick snake or the tentacle-arm of a demon. It had withdrawn again without touching ground in the city, but other such whirlwinds had made contact with the ground and wrought great damage out in the countryside. Dead animals had been found high up in the treetops, houses had been destroyed, and crops torn up. There had also been marvels - an unbroken egg driven into the trunk of a tree, straws driven through thick boards.
He had been fascinated by the whirlwinds and the wreckage and bizarre marvels they had left in their wake, but otherwise the storms held no interest for him. In fact, this current outbreak had left him fuming with anger, for he only truly enjoyed storms when he had called them and was in control of them. The cold and damp made his wounds ache, and all his joints complained and stiffened, reminding him painfully that this body was not as youthful as it looked.
And reminding him that he had not even overcome Ancar's coercions enough to allow him free reign to recreate that youth and renew the spells that had held age in abeyance. If it had not been for those coercions, he would have been able to choose a victim of his own and Heal himself of his damage. One life would give him the energy to cure himself completely. Two would permit him to reverse some of the ravages of age for a time. More than two would permit him to make any changes to himself that he pleased.
And it would be so pleasant if one of those victims could be Ancar himself....
Failing that, he retreated to his favorite chair, the one nearest the fire, and sat warming himself. Daydreaming of revenge and planning his course to obtain it were his only real amusements at the moment.
He probably should be down among Ancar's courtiers, but this had not been a particularly fruitful day, and he had grown bored rather quickly. He had never had much patience with the witless babble of a court even when it had been his own court. In this current body, he had eliminated holding court altogether. When he wished his underlings to hear something, he gathered them together and told them, then dismissed them. When he wished to hear from them - which was rarely - he ordered them before him and stripped their minds.
But Ancar seemed convinced that a "court" was necessary, although he no longer held audiences or even permitted anyone below the rank of noble near him. Perhaps for a ruler like him, it was. Even though it was mostly a sham, and he himself never appeared before his assembled courtiers.
Still, a reasonable amount of information could be obtained if one had the patience to listen to Ancar's brainless toadies, and the wit to read real meaning from what the few foreign ambassadors did and did not say. Today, however, had been hopelessly dull. Even Hulda was off somewhere else, leaving him to mouth meaningless pleasantries at fools who could have served far more useful purposes bleeding their lives away in his hands and granting him the power which they could not use.
The very first person Ancar had introduced him to was Hulda, after warning him far too many times about the woman's perfidy. He had been the consummate gentleman. Hulda amused him. She was quick-witted when she cared to be - much cleverer than she appeared. Complacency was her flaw when it came to Ancar; she obviously still believed she ruled him completely, and if anything would bring her downfall, this complacency would be the cause.
She was much wiser in the ways of magic than her pupil; she knew Falconsbane for a Changechild, for she had made some clever remarks about "changing one's nature" when Ancar had first introduced them. He could certainly see the attraction she must have had for the boy when he was still young and malleable. She was lushly ripe - perhaps a trifle overblown, but some folk liked their fruit well-seasoned and their meat well-aged. With her curving, voluptuous lines, good features, long flow of dark hair, and her startling violet eyes, she cut quite an impressive figure.
Falconsbane had bowed over her hand, but had caressed the palm, unseen, before he let it go. He had noted the flare of interest in her eyes, and had smiled, and nodded knowingly as she lowered her lids to give him a seductive glance from beneath her heavy lashes.
She, too, was older than she looked, he knew that instinctively - but she was not as old as he was, not even in this body. Thus far he had managed to avoid more than speaking to her without ever seeming to avoid her, a fact that must infuriate and frustrate her. He intended to play her a while, before he decided how to handle her over the long run. Let her pursue him; let him be the enigma. It would make her concentrate on his physical presence and not on the threat he might be to her power.
She did not connect his presence with the Gate, and at this moment, he preferred to keep it that way. She recognized him for a mage of some kind, but she did not appear to have any way of judging his true abilities. That was all to the good. If he decided to make a temporary ally of her, he would reveal to her what he chose. And at the moment, he did not know if he cared to make her an ally. It might be amusing, especially since his exotic nature patently attracted her, but it might also be very dangerous. She was playing some deep game, and had secrets that young fool Ancar had not even guessed at. Falconsbane wanted to know just what those secrets were before he even began to consider her as an ally.
And mages were notoriously jealous of their power; if she guessed him to be any kind of a rival, it would not take her long to decide to eliminate him. She would try to do so subtly, but she would not be hampered by coercions. Becoming involved in a covert mage-struggle at this stage could only further delay his plans for freedom.
In the meantime, it suited him to pique her curiosity, and to cast little tidbits of information to her designed to make her think - rightfully - that Ancar was intriguing against her and that he was an unwitting part of that plan. The best thing he could do would be to set these two openly at each others' throats. The more tangled this situation got, the better the outcome for him. The more time they wasted struggling for power, the more time he would have to free himself. The more power they wasted, the weaker they would be when he finally succeeded.
He had been looking forward to tangling the situation a bit more, but Hulda had not even put in an appearance at court this afternoon. Falconsbane had quickly become irritated with the inane chatter and had finally retreated to his suite in boredom and disgust. The joint aches warning of an approaching storm had not sweetened his temper in the least.
He slumped in his chair, stared at the fire, and brooded. He could not recall, in any of his lifetimes, having been so completely cut off from control. It was not possible to forget even for a moment that he was the one being controlled. This was, in many ways, worse than being imprisoned, for he was a prisoner in his own body.
The flames danced wildly in the changing drafts from the chimney, sometimes roaring up the chimney, sometimes flattening against the logs, but he could not hear the crackling of the fire for the howling of the wind and the continual barrage of thunder. Every time the flames flattened for a moment, it simply made his rage smolder a little more.
His several days in the heart of Ancar's court had made it clear that he had been outfoxed by someone he would not even have had in his employ as a menial. He knew how disastrous these storms were, not only to the countryside, but to the energy-fields for leagues around. Even if Ancar didn't care what they did to his land, Falconsbane was going to have to put all this back before he could work properly. That was what made him the angriest. He had known that the boy was a fool. He had not known the boy was as big a fool as all this.
He did not hear Ancar come in, and was not aware that the young King was in the room until movement at the corner of his vision caught his attention. The noise of the thunder had covered the sounds of the door opening and the boy's footsteps. That irritated him even more. The brat could come and go as he pleased, even in Falconsbane's own rooms, and the Adept was powerless to prevent it!
He looked up, and Ancar's smug expression simply served to ignite his anger.
"What is wrong with you, you little fool?" he snapped furiously. "Why aren't you doing anything about this storm? Or are you simply such an idiot that you don't care what it means?"
Ancar stepped back a pace, doubtless surprised by the venom in his voice, the rage in his eyes. "What it means?" he repeated stupidly. "What do you mean by that? How can a storm mean anything at all? How could I do anything about it even if it did mean something?"
For a moment, Falconsbane stared at him in surprise so great that his anger evaporated. How could anyone who had gotten past Apprentice not know weather control, and how magic affected the world about him?
"Hasn't anyone ever taught you weather-magic?" he blurted without thinking. "Don't you realize what you and those idiot mages of yours have been doing?"
Ancar could only blink stupidly at him. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he said. "I don't understand. What have we been doing that makes you so angry?"
Finally, as Ancar continued to stare at him, Falconsbane gathered enough of his temper about him to answer the boy's unspoken questions.
"Evidently, your teacher Hulda has been hiding more from you than you realized," he replied testily. "It is very simple; so simple that you should have been able to deduce it from observation alone if you had ever bothered to observe anything. Magical energy is created by living things and runs along natural lines, like water. You do know that much, I hope?"
Ancar nodded silently.
He snorted, and continued, "Well, then, like water, it can be disturbed, perturbed, and otherwise affected by meddling with it. If you meddle a little, the disturbance is so minor that no one would notice it if they were not looking for it. If you meddle a great deal, as if you had just thrown a mighty boulder into a pond, everyone will get splashed and they most certainly will notice. That is how your Hulda knew you were meddling with a Gate. She sensed the ripples in the magical energies, and knew by the pattern they made that you had created a Gate!"
"I know all that - " Ancar began impatiently.
Falconsbane interrupted him, waving him into silence. "Magic also affects the physical elements of the world," he continued, allowing his irritation to show. "You should have noticed this by now. Hadn't you even seen that some kind of weather change always follows a working in the more powerful magics? The more subtle the element, the more it will be affected. Meddle with a Gate, and even the earth will resonate. Meddle enough, you might trigger an earthquake if the earth is unstable at that point. But the most subtle elements are air and water - which make weather, you fool. Changes in magical energy change the weather, as the air and water reflect what is happening in the magical fields. You have stirred up the magical fields hereabouts with your little experiments - and now you are reaping the result. Keep this up much more, and you will either be paying a premium price for imported food, or you will have to steal it or starve next year."
Ancar's mouth hung open a little with surprise, his eyes going a little wider. Evidently this was all new to him. And by the growing dismay in his expression, it was not a pleasant revelation.
Falconsbane smiled nastily. "Any mage who is any good at all makes certain that he calms the fields if he can after he is finished. Any mage with the power to command others need only tell them to take care of the disturbances, damping them before they cause any great harm. And any mage worthy of his hire could at least steer storms over his enemy's territory! By the time I became an Adept, I could do it without even thinking about it when I worked my magics in freedom. I still could, if I had that freedom to work without hindrance." He folded his arms and slumped back down in his chair in a fit of assumed petulance, staring at the flames and ignoring Ancar.
The boy was a fool, but not so great a fool, surely, that he could not understand what Falconsbane had just told him in so many words. Falconsbane could control the weather as he and his own wizards could not - except that Falconsbane was not free to do so. In order to control the weather, Falconsbane must be freed of the coercion spells.
In fact, that was not quite the case. Ancar need only modify the spells in order to give Falconsbane the freedom to work his will on the weather. But Ancar's education was full of some very massive holes, and one of those seemed to be a lack of shading. Things either were, or they were not; there were no indeterminate gradations. So Mornelithe was hoping that his insulting speech would goad Ancar into freeing him, at least a little -
It worked. As Ancar recovered from his surprise, both at the information and at being spoken to as if he were a particularly stupid schoolboy, his face darkened with anger.
"Well," he snarled, just barely audible above the rumble of thunder, "If you can do something, then do it, and stop complaining!"
His fingers writhed in a complicated mnemonic gesture, and Falconsbane felt some of the pressure on his powers easing a little. Only a little, but it was a start...a few of the coercions had been dropped. Ancar was not going to release him entirely, but the worst and most confining of the spells were gone.
Without a word, he rose from his chair, and stalked toward the window. Throwing it open with a grandiose gesture, he let the storm come tearing into the room, blowing out all the candles, extinguishing the fire, and plastering his clothing to his body in a breath. He was chilled and soaked in no time, but he ignored the discomforts of both in favor of the impressive show he was creating. Lightning raced across the sky above him, and he flung his arms wide, narrowing his eyes against the pelting rain. A bit of power made his hands glow most convincingly. He didn't need to make his hands glow, of course, but it made Ancar's eyes widen with awe in such a satisfactory manner.
He could have done everything from his comfortable chair, of course, without doing much more than lift a finger or two, but that would not have been dramatic enough. Ancar was stupid enough to be more impressed by dramatics than by results. That was probably why he had ended up with such inferior hirelings in the area of magic. Falconsbane did not need gestures to set his will twisting the forces of magic along the paths he chose. Falconsbane did not even need to close his eyes and drop into trance when the spell he wrought was a simple and familiar one.
Falconsbane sent out his probes, riding the wind until he found the center of the storm, and found the corresponding knot of energy in the ley-lines. He could unknot it, of course, but he didn't want to. Let Ancar's land suffer a little more. Let him see what a weapon controlled weather could be. Seizing the knot of energy, he gave it a powerful shove, sending it farther down the line and taking the storm with it.
Not too far, though. Just far enough from the capital and palace that it would not make his joints ache or interfere with his sleep tonight. He could not actually undo all the things that had caused the storm in his present state of coercion, and he did not think that Ancar would be inclined to release him completely just so that he could do so. If the fool asked him why he had not sent the storm into the skies of Valdemar, he would tell the boy that the King's own spells were to blame, interfering with Falconsbane's magic. That might convince him to release a few more of those coercions.
Or perhaps he wouldn't care that his farmers' fields would be flooded, the crops rotting in the sodden earth. It didn't much matter to Falconsbane, except as an example of how short-sighted Ancar was.
The wind and rain died abruptly. As he opened his eyes, he saw with satisfaction that he had not lost his touch. Already the lightning had lessened and the storm was moving off, clouds fleeing into the distance so rapidly that it was obvious something had made them change their courses. In a candlemark or two, it would be dry and clear around the palace.
Hopefully, this entire exercise had been showy enough to impress the young idiot. He turned to shrug at his captor. "Well," he said. "There you have it."
Ancar was nodding wisely, his eyes a little wide as he tried unsuccessfully to cover his amazement. "Very good," he said carelessly, still trying to cover his earlier slip. "I can see that you know what you are doing."
Falconsbane simply smiled, then returned to his chair. Now that those particular coercions were off, he relit the candles and the fire with a simple spell. And he noticed, with a twitch of contempt, that Ancar was as impressed by that as he had been by how quickly he had sent the storm away.
"I trust that something brought you here other than a wish for my company," he said, carefully keeping any hint of sarcasm from his voice. He gestured at the other chair beside the fire. "Pray, join me."
He was carefully calculating his insolence in being seated in the King's presence to underscore the fact that he was, current conditions notwithstanding, the King's equal. And it seemed to be working. Ancar did not say a word about his insulting behavior and, in fact, he took the proffered seat with something as near to humility as Ancar ever came.
"Nothing important," Ancar said airily. It was a lie, of course, and Falconsbane could read his real intentions as easily as if he could read the boy's thoughts. Simple deductions, actually; he knew that Ancar had been reviewing progress - or lack of it - along the border of Valdemar. There had been messengers from that border this very day. Despite Ancar's animosity toward Hulda, in this much he was still of one mind with the sorceress - his hatred of Valdemar. So that particular meeting was probably where Hulda had been this afternoon. It followed that he considered his options to have been exhausted, and now he wanted some help with that particular project from Mornelithe.
"Ah, then since there is nothing in particular you wish to discuss, perhaps you might be willing to satisfy my own curiosity about something," he said, silkily. "This Valdemar that troubles you - you can tell me something about the land? How did you choose to quarrel with them in the first place?" He studied his own fingernails intently. "It would seem to me that you have been placing an inordinate amount of effort into attempting to conquer them, when so far as I can see, they are fairly insignificant. They have never attacked you, and they always stop at their own border, even when they are winning. Trying to conquer them seems, at least to an outsider, to be a losing proposition."
He looked up, to see Ancar flushing a little, his eyes showing a hint of anger. But the King did not reply.
He smiled. "And if I understand everything I have heard, now you plan to try for them again. What is the point here? Are you so addicted to defeat that you cannot wait to give them another opportunity to deliver it to you?" As Ancar flushed an even deeper shade, he continued, taunting the boy with the litany of his failures, gleaned from questioning servants, courtiers, and some of Ancar's other mages. "First you attack them before you are ready, and you naturally suffer a humiliating defeat. Then you attack them without ever bothering to discover if they had found some military allies and suffer a worse defeat. Your people are leaking across the border into their land on a daily basis, and you cannot even manage to insinuate a spy into their midst! Really, Ancar, I should think by now you would know enough to leave these people alone!"
Ancar was nearly purple with anger - and yet he held his peace and his tongue. Ancar did not want to talk about it. Now that was a curious combination....
And to Falconsbane's mind, that spelled "obsession."
When one was obsessed with something, logic did not enter into the picture.
When one was obsessed with something, one was often blind to all else. An obsession was a weakness, a place into which a clever man could place the point of his wit, and pry until the shell cracked....
As Ancar sat silently fuming, Falconsbane made some rapid mental calculations, adding up all the information he had been gleaning from courtiers, servants, and underling mages. Ancar was a young male, and any young male hates to be defeated, but that defeat must be doubly bitter coming as it did from the hands of females. He had failed to conquer Valdemar, failed to defeat its Queen, failed to get his hands on its Princess. He had failed a military conquest not once, but twice.
But that was by no means all, as Falconsbane's probes had revealed. He had tried, with no success whatsoever, to infiltrate a spy into the ranks of the Heralds. The only agents he had in Valdemar itself were relatively ineffective and powerless ones, placed among the lowest of the merchants and peasantry. Mercenary soldiers under yet another female leader had thwarted every single assassination attempt he had made, even the ones augmented by magic.
In short, the Queen and her nearest and dearest seemed to have some kind of charmed existence. They prevailed against all odds, as if the very gods were on their side. Their success mocked Ancar and all his ambitions, and without a doubt, it all maddened him past bearing.
So Falconsbane thought.
Until Ancar finally spoke, and proved to him that in this one respect, he had underestimated the young King.
"I must expand," he said, slowly, his flush cooling. "I am using up the resources of Hardorn at a rapid rate. I need gold to pay my mages, grain to feed my armies, a hundred things that simply must be brought in from outside. I cannot go South - perhaps you will not believe me, but the Karsites are the fiercest fighters you could ever imagine in your wildest nightmares. They are religious, you see. They believe that if they die in the defense of their land, they rise straight to the feet of their God...and if they take any of the enemies of their God with them, they rise to his right hand."
Falconsbane nodded, a tiny spark of respect kindling for the King. So he understood the power a religion could hold over an enemy? Mornelithe would never have credited him with that much insight. Perhaps there was more to the boy than the Adept had assumed. "Indeed," he said in reply. "There is no more deadly an enemy than a religious fanatic. They are willing to die and desperate to take you with them."
"Precisely," Ancar sighed. "What is more, their priests have a magic that comes from their God that is quite a match for my own. When you add to all that the mountains that border their land - it is an impossible combination. Those mountains are so steep that there is no place to bring a conventional army through without suffering one ambush or trap after another."
"Well, then, what about North?" Falconsbane asked, reasonably. And to his surprise, Ancar whitened.
"Do not even mention the North," the King whispered, and glanced hastily from side to side, as if he feared being overheard. "There is something there that dwarfs even the power Karse commands. It is so great - believe me or not, as you will, but I have seen it with my own eyes - that it has created an invisible fence that no one can pass. I have found no mage that can breach it, and after the few who attempted it perished, not even Hulda is willing to try."
Falconsbane raised his eyebrows involuntarily. That was something new! An invisible wall around a country? Who - or rather, what - could ever have produced something like that? What was the name of that land, anyway? Iften? Iftel?
But Ancar had already changed the subject.
"Most of all, I cannot go Eastward," he continued, his voice resuming a normal volume, but taking on an edge of bitterness. "The Eastern Empire is large enough to swallow Hardorn and never notice; the Eastern mages are as good or better than any I can hire, and their armies are vast...and well-paid. And they are watching me. I know it."
That frightened him; Falconsbane had no trouble at all in reading his fear, it was clear in the widening of his eyes, in the tense muscles of his neck and shoulders, in the rigidity of his posture.
"At the moment, they seem to feel that Hardorn is not worth the fight it would take to conquer it. They had a treaty with my father, which they have left in place, but the Emperor has not actually signed a treaty with my regime. Emperor Charliss has not even sent an envoy until very recently. I believe they are watching me, assessing me. But if I fail to take Valdemar, they will assume that I am weak enough to conquer." He grimaced. "My father had treaties of mutual defense with Valdemar and Iftel to protect him. I do not have those. I had not thought I would need them."
"Then do not attempt Valdemar a third time," Falconsbane suggested mildly.
Ancar's jaw clenched. "If I do not, the result will be the same. The Emperor Charliss will assume I am too weak to try. They have sent their ambassador here, and an entourage with him, as if they were planning on signing the treaty soon, but they have not deceived me. These people are not here to make treaties, they are here to spy on me. There are spies all over Hardorn by now. I have found some - "
"I trust you left them in place," Mornelithe said automatically.
He snorted. "Of course I did, I am not that big a fool. The best spy is the one you know! But I am also not so foolish as to think that I have found them all." He rose and began pacing in front of the fire, still talking. "One of the reasons I am sure that I have been unable to attract mages of any great ability is that the Emperor can afford to pay them far more than I can offer. I am fairly certain that the mages I have are not creatures of his, but there is no way of telling if he has placed mages as spies in my court and outside of it. So long as they practiced their mage-craft secretly, how would I ever know what they were?"
Falconsbane refrained from pointing out that he had just told the boy how he would know, that disturbances in the energy-fields would tell him. Perhaps neither he nor his mages were sensitive to those fields. It was not unheard of, though such mages rarely rose above Master. Perhaps he was sensitive, but only when in trance. If so, that was the fault of his teacher.
Ancar abruptly turned and strode back to the window, standing with his back to Falconsbane and the room, staring at the rapidly-clearing clouds.
"This is something I had not seen before," he said, as if to himself. "And I had not known that magic could wreck such inadvertent and accidental havoc. It would be an excellent weapon...."
Falconsbane snorted softly. It had taken the boy long enough to figure that out.
"Men calling themselves 'weather-wizards' have come to me, seeking employment," he continued. "I had thought them little better than herb-witches and charm-makers. They didn't present themselves well enough for me to believe them. I shall have to go about collecting them now."
"That would be wise," Falconsbane said mildly, hiding his contempt.
Ancar turned again and walked back into the room, this time heading for the door, but paused halfway to that portal to gaze back at Falconsbane.
"Is there anything else you need?" he asked.
Falconsbane was quite sure that if he asked for what he really wanted - his freedom - he would not get it. Ancar was not yet sure enough of him, or of himself. Rightly so. The moment he had that freedom, Falconsbane would squash the upstart like an insect.
But perhaps - perhaps it was time to ask for something else, something nearly as important.
"Send me someone you wish eliminated," he said. "Permanently eliminated, I mean. Male or female, it does not matter."
He halfway expected more questions - why he wanted such a captive, and what he expected to do with such a sacrificial victim when he had one. But Ancar's eyes narrowed; he smiled, slowly, and there was a dark and sardonic humor about the expression that told Falconsbane that Ancar didn't care why he wanted a victim. He nodded, slowly and deliberately. His eyes locked with Falconsbane's, and the Adept once again saw in Ancar's eyes a spirit kindred to his own.
Which made Ancar all the more dangerous. There was no room in the world for two like Falconsbane.
He left without another word, but no more than half a candlemark later, two guards arrived. Between them they held a battered, terrified man, so bound with chains he could scarcely move. When Falconsbane rose, one of them silently handed him the keys to the man's bindings.
The guards backed out, closing the door behind them.
And took his time.
Shilling rain poured from a leaden sky, a continuous sheet of gray from horizon to horizon. Elspeth silently thanked the far-away hertasi for the waterproof coats they had made, and tied her hood a little tighter. They rode right into the teeth of the wind; there was little in the way of lightning and thunder, but the wind and sheeting rain more than made up for that lack. The poor gryphons, shrouded in improvised raincapes made from old tents, would have been soaked to the skin if they had not been able to shield themselves from the worst of it with a bit of magic. The rest of them, however, chose to deal with the elements rather than advertise their presence on the road any further. Admittedly, that was less of a hardship for the Tayledras, Elspeth, Skif, and Nyara, with their coats supplied by the clever fingers of the hertasi. She felt very sorry for Cavil, Shion, and Lisha, whose standard-issue raincloaks were nowhere near as waterproof as hertasi-made garments.
Still, rain found its way in through every opening, sending unexpected trickles of chill down arms and backs, and exposed legs and faces got the full brunt of the weather. "I may have been more miserable a time or two in my life, but if so, I don't remember it," Skif said to Elspeth.
Nyara grimaced, showing sharp teeth, and nodded agreement. "I do not care to think of spending weeks riding through this," she said. "It must be bad for the hooved ones, yes? And does not cold and wet like this make people ill?"
On the other side of her, Cavil leaned over the neck of his Companion to add his own commentary.
"Now you see what we've been dealing with, off and on, for the past six months or so!" he shouted over the drumming rain, sniffing and rubbing his nose. "The - ah - lady is right; every village is suffering colds or fevers. I hope that we manage to ride out of the storm soon, but I am not going to wager on it. You can't predict anything anymore!"
Elspeth glanced back at Firesong, who was huddled in his waterproof cape, his firebird inside his hood, just as Vree was inside Darkwind's :Isn't there anything you can do about this?: she asked him :Can't you send the rain away, or something? I thought about doing it, but since I've never done it before, I'm afraid to try.:
:Rightly,: he replied :Weather-work done on mage-disturbance storms after the fact is a touchy business. For that matter, weather-work is always a touchy business. I do not know enough about this land, the countryside hereabouts, to make an informed decision. You do not yet have the skill. We do not know what is safe to do with this storm. Anything either of us do to change the weather-patterns could only mean making a worse disaster than this. Ask your friend if this is going to cause severe enough crop damage to cause shortages later.:
"Is this bad enough to cause measurable crop damage?" she shouted back to Cavil. He squinted up at the sky for a moment, as if taking its measure, then shook his head. "It won't ruin the grazing, and the hay isn't ripening yet," he replied. "Most people around here are raising beef cattle, milch cows, and sheep, not crops. If this were farther south - " He shook his head. "We've been lucky; storms have been violent, but they haven't caused any major crop damage yet."
Yet. The word hung in the air, as ominous as the lowering clouds.
:Then we do nothing,: Firesong said firmly :There is no point in meddling and making a bad situation worse! We can endure some rough weather; the worst we will suffer is a wetting and a chill. When I have an opportunity to meet with those who have records of normal weather patterns, then I will help reestablish those patterns.:He sighed :I fear I was only too prophetic when I said there was a great deal of work ahead of me.:
Elspeth shrugged and grimaced slightly, but she could certainly see his point. There was only one benefit the foul weather was bestowing. Cavil could not insist on leaving the gryphons or the Tayledras behind on the excuse that they couldn't keep up with the Companions. He'd said something of the sort just before they left the Ashkevron manor, but his own Companion had told him tartly that no one was going to go racing to Haven in a downpour. In weather like this, even the Companions could not make very good time.
Darkwind and Nyara rode on horses borrowed from Lord Ashkevron, at that worthy's insistence. Those horses were what the Lord had referred to as "mudders;" sturdy beasts that could keep up a good pace all day through the worst weather. They were fairly ugly beasts; jug-headed, big-boned, as muscular as oxen, with rough, hairy hides that never could be curried into a shine. But those heavy bones and dense muscles pulled them right through the mire, and their dun-brown coats didn't show mud as badly as Firesong's white dyheli or the Companions - all of which were smeared and splattered up to their bellies.
Well, we hardly make a good show, but that's not such a bad thing, she reflected, shoving a strand of wet hair back under the hood of her cloak. No one even thinks twice about making a State Visit out of us when they see us...
In fact, the three times they had stopped overnight so far, their hosts had been so concerned by their appearance that they had simply hurried them into warm beds, and had meals sent up to their rooms. They had been able to avoid State nonsense altogether.
Elspeth had just discovered something about herself, something she had learned after a mere twelve candlemarks in Cavil, Shion, and Lisha's presence. Her tolerance for courtly politics had deteriorated to the point of nonexistence after her stay with k'Sheyna. She just didn't want to hear about it. No gossip, no suppositions, none of it.
At some point during her musing, Skif and Nyara had dropped back as well, leaving her in the lead. Well, that hardly mattered. No one was going to get lost on a perfectly straight road.
Gwena sighed, her sides heaving under Elspeth's legs :I will be mortally glad to get to a warm, dry stable,: she said :The Vales spoiled me.:
The image she sent back included one of both Companions soaking away the cold in one of the hot springs. Elspeth chuckled, a little surprised; she hadn't realized that Gwena and Cymry had made use of the Vale's pools, too.
It made sense, of course, since some things in a Vale had to suit not only humans, but the Hawkbrothers' non-human allies. Surely dyheli used the hot springs, so why not the Companions?
:They've spoiled me, too, dear,: she replied, feeling her own twinge of longing for those wonderful hot pools. The best she could expect would be a hot bath; not the same thing at all :We have got to see about creating something like the springs at Haven. Think about coming in for a soak after a freezing rain - :
:Like this one? Oh, don't remind me!: Gwena moaned :I can't even warm up by all the shoving through the mud!:
Elspeth patted her shoulder sympathetically :It's almost dark,: she said, with encouragement :It's not that far till we stop. I'll make sure you get something warm to eat, a nice hot mash or something like it, and a fire-warmed blanket.:
Gwena cast a blue eye back at her, an imploring gaze made all the more pathetic by a soaked forelock straggling over the eye :Please. And don't forget just because a dozen nobles pounce on you once you're in the door.:
Any reply she might have made was interrupted by Shion riding up alongside. "Excuse me, Lady," the Herald said, with a sharp and curious glance at Darkwind. "This man you are with? What exactly is his status?"
Shion and Cavil, both born of noble families, had done their level best to get her to talk - or rather, gossip. They were terribly persistent about things Elspeth considered private matters, asking very prying questions whenever Darkwind was out of earshot. Maybe being with the Tayledras had changed her, but she just didn't see where questions like this one were any of Shion's business.
Elspeth narrowed her eyes a bit at that, but kept her tone civil. And she chose to deliberately misunderstand the question. "I suppose that technically he is my equal," she replied evenly. "He is the son of the leader of Clan k'Sheyna, and an ally in his own right - "
She had a suspicion that this was not what Shion meant, and that suspicion was confirmed when the Herald frowned. "Actually, what I meant was - what is he to you? Why is he here, rather than in his own land?"
Elspeth decided to skate right around the question, and continue to give the answers to the questions Shion did have a right to ask. "He is here because he is one of my teachers in magic, and because he has offered to teach however many of our Heralds who have the Mage-Gift as he can. And yes, he can tell who has it. He tells me that I am likely not the only Herald to have it." She nodded as Shion bit off an exclamation. "Exactly. Evidently it was never precisely lost, but it was never used for lack of Heralds who could identify it and teach those who had it." She blinked in surprise as she realized something. "For that matter, I can identify people with it, but I'm not qualified to teach."
:Yet,: Gwena added.
:Hush, you'll undermine my credibility,: she replied.
Shion blinked, and licked her lips. "Do - do I have it?" she asked, as if she hoped to hear she did, and feared it at the same time.
Elspeth Looked for a moment at all three of the Heraids, using that new ability, and shook her head. "Not unless it's latent," she replied honestly. "None of you do, actually. I should tell you it's one of the rarer Gifts anyway. About as common as ForeSight, although that wasn't always the case. People who had it tended to drift out of Valdemar, after Vanyel's time. Most of the time it was identified and trained as if it was FarSight."
She paused for a moment, thinking quickly. "Don't assume I'm something special just because I'm Mage-Gifted. There've been plenty of Heralds who were - and are! - it's just that the Gift wasn't identified as such. Really, the main reason that I'm the first new Herald-Mage is either a matter of accident or divine providence. If a threat like Ancar had come up before, one of the other Heralds with the Gift would have gone outKingdom to get the training. If it hadn't come up now, I would still be sitting in Haven, getting beaten on by Kero and Alberich!"
Shion nodded, looking a little disappointed. Elspeth only chuckled. "Look, I wouldn't worry too much about it if I were you. Any Gift is useful. Any powerful Gift is extremely useful. It's also extremely dangerous to the bearer and those around. Mage-Gift isn't an answer to everything, and sometimes it's less so than mind-magic. What's more, mages don't always think to counter mind-magic. When they do think of it, they don't always succeed."
"That is because they cannot always counter mind-magic," Darkwind said, riding up to join the conversation, as Skif moved obligingly out of the way for him. Elspeth smiled thankfully at him; now maybe Shion would stop prying for a little. Although...perhaps she was being too harsh. She was the Heir, and what had happened to her in the Tayledras lands did have some importance for the Kingdom. And it was entirely possible that she was overreacting.
Thank Havens he understands our tongue enough to come rescue me!
Darkwind smiled charmingly at Shion. "There are ways to block some kinds of mind-magic, but they also block all other kinds of magic. A mage-shield powerful enough to block Mindspeaking blocks nearly everything else. So if you wish to keep your enemy from Mindspeaking, you also prevent yourself from working magic upon him."
Shion shook her head. "It's too complicated for me," she replied, and dropped back to ride beside Cavil, leaving Elspeth and Darkwind in the lead.
"Your grasp of my language is improving," she teased. He shrugged. Vree's head peeked out from beneath a fold of the hood for a moment. The bondbird looked at the rain in acute distaste, made a ratcheting sound, and vanished back into Darkwind's voluminous hood. Movement inside the hood showed Vree settling back to wait, probably grumbling to himself.
"My grasp of your language is improving because I am taking most of it from your mind, bright feather," he replied, giving her a glance that warmed her in spite of the freezing rain. "I thought perhaps I ought to save you from that too-curious colleague of yours."
"You noticed that, too, did you?" She grimaced. "All three of them are like that. I suppose it's your exotic nature. It makes them terribly curious."
"I don't know...." He stared off ahead for a moment, then switched to Tayledras. "We have been three days on the road now, and it has not stopped, this questioning. Perhaps it is that we Hawkbrothers are more private, but they seem to see nothing amiss with wishing to know everything about me. Not only do they wish to know in detail what I plan to do when we reach Haven, they wish to know things that have no bearing on our mission. How I feel about everything, what my personal opinions are on such and such a thing, and most particularly, all the details of what you and I have done together. They seem to think they have a right to this information. It is - rather embarrassing."
She shook her head, puzzled and annoyed. "You may be mistaken," she told him, but with a bit of doubt creeping into her voice. If he had gotten the impression that Shion was being a little too personal -
But I am the Heir. Maybe she's under orders from Mother to find out as much as she can about the people with me, and what we might have been - ah - involved in.
"Our cultures are very different, after all," she continued. "What sounds like a question about our personal lives may only be a question about what I was learning with you."
The look he gave her told her that he didn't think that he was mistaken, but he let the matter drop. It wasn't the first time he had complained of the other Heralds' insatiable questioning, but it was the first time he had mentioned their interest in something that could only be fodder for gossip and could serve no other purpose.
"You will probably get the usual greeting when we arrive," he said instead, changing the subject. His eyes twinkled when she grimaced and winced.
"If one more person comes up to me and says 'but I thought you were dead!' I'm going to strangle him," she muttered. "I can't believe people could be so stupid! And what difference would it make if I had been? The twins are perfectly capable, either one of them, of being made Heir. I am not indispensable! I'm only another Herald, if it comes right down to that."
"But the rumors made it seem as if you were indispensable, ke'chara," he pointed out. "The rumors must have implied that your government was in a panic and trying to cover that panic. That makes me think that the rumors must have been more than idle nonsense; they must have been spread persistently and maliciously."
"Persistent and malicious - " Now that had a familiar, nasty ring to it. "Well, that's Ancar all over," Elspeth replied. "I can't think of anyone who deserves that description more. No doubt where it came from. I don't know what in seven hells he hoped to accomplish, though."
"Enough unrest would suit him, I suspect." Darkwind put a hand inside his hood to scratch Vree's breast-feathers. He had warned Elspeth that he was unused to riding, but he seemed to be doing just fine to her. Of course, it helped that their pace was being held to a fast walk. You had to really work to get thrown at that speed. "He wishes, I think, to make as much disturbance and confusion as possible. The Clans have a game like that, from one created by the Shin'a'in. Artful distraction."
She shook her head, and water dribbled into her face. "I just can't believe that disruption would be enough for Ancar."
Darkwind continued to scratch Vree - which looked rather odd, since he seemed to be feeling around inside his hood for something - and his eyes darkened with thought. "What of this, then," he said, after a moment. "You say that your younger siblings would make good Heirs. But their father is not your father, am I correct?" At her nod, he continued. "What if the rumors of your death were only a beginning - that once it was believed that you were dead, Aacar then planned to add rumors that your stepfather had contrived your death, in order to have his own children take the throne?"
She stared at him, mouth dropping open. "That - that's crazy!" she stammered, finally. "No one who knew my stepfather would ever believe that!"
"No one who knew him, you say," Darkwind persisted. "But this land of yours is a very large one, larger than I had ever guessed. So how many of these people out here truly know him? How can they? How many have even seen him more than once or twice, and at a distance?"
It made diabolical sense. Especially given that Elspeth's own father - Prince Daren's brother - had tried to murder her mother and take the throne for himself. People would be only too ready to believe in the murderous intentions of another of the Rethwellan royals.
For that matter, they had been perfectly willing to believe that she might plot against her mother, as if betrayal were somehow inheritable.
Ancar was even clever enough to spread two conflicting sets of rumors. One set, that Prince Daren had connived at Elspeth's death, and another, that Elspeth was alive and trying to usurp her mother's throne.
"I hate it," she said slowly, "And you are probably right. Especially since my first destination was Rethwellan, his land. People would have been only too ready to believe he'd set something up with his brother to get rid of me."
Darkwind nodded. "And what effect would that have upon the rulers of your land?"
"It - at the very best, it would be a distraction and cause a lot of problems at a time when we don't need either." She clenched her jaw. "At the worst, it would undermine confidence in the Queen and everything she stands for. That snake - he is as clever as he is rotten, I swear! He and Falconsbane are two of a kind!"
"Then we must hope he never achieves the kind of power that Falconsbane had," Darkwind said firmly. "We must work to be rid of him before he does. All the more reason for your friends to be here. We have seen this kind of creature before, and I hope we can second-guess Ancar because of our experience with Falconsbane."
Clouds were too thick for a real sunset, but the light was beginning to fade. Something large and dark, a building of some kind, was looming up in the distance at the side of the road; the rain was falling too thickly for Elspeth to make out what it was, but out here, it was unlikely to be anything other than their next stop, the manor of Lady Kalthea Lyonnes.
Shion looked up and cried, "Look!" in a tone that confirmed Elspeth's guess. They all urged their tired mounts into a little faster pace, and within half a candlemark they were pounding at the gates.
Fortunately, after the trouble at the Ashkevron manor, someone always went on ahead to inform their hosts exactly what was coming. This time Lisha had ridden ahead to warn the Lady and her household about the gryphons; there was a certain amount of trepidation on the part of the servants who came out to meet them, but at least no one fled screaming in fear.
Things were sorted out with commendable haste. The gryphons were conducted off to the chapel - chapels seemed to be the only rooms suitable to their size - the Companions and dyheli taken to the stables and a promised hot mash and rubdown. And finally the two-legged members of the party were brought in, still dripping a little, to be presented to their hostess.
"Elspeth!" the Lady cried, clasping Elspeth's hand and kissing it fervently. "Thank the gods! We heard you were dead!"
Darkwind choked, smothering a laugh, and Elspeth only sighed.
But later that night, after all the fuss was over and everyone had been settled into their rooms, Elspeth sagged into a chair beside the fire and stared into the flames. Perhaps this business of staying with the high-born was a mistake....
On the other hand, no inn would ever accept the gryphons. And at least in this way, word was being spread quickly that she was alive and she had returned with some real help against Ancar.
But another little conversation with Shion and with a cousin of Shion's who lived here had just proved to her that Darkwind was right. Shion and the others weren't at all concerned with the welfare of Valdemar - or at least that wasn't their motivation in cross-examining her. They were just plain nosy. They wanted gossip-fodder, and what was more, if she didn't give it to them, they were perfectly capable of making things up out of whole cloth!
Shion's cousin had brought Elspeth her supper, using that as an excuse to ask any number of increasingly impertinent questions. Finally she had concluded, shamelessly, with the question of whether it was true that Hawkbrothers only mated in groups, saying as an excuse that she had read about it in "an old story." And it was pretty obvious that the cousin also wanted to know if Elspeth had been a member of one of those groups.
When Elspeth asked her where she had heard such nonsense, the girl had demurred and avoided giving an answer, but Elspeth already had a good idea who had prompted it. After all, until she had gone delving into the old Archives, there hadn't been more than a handful of folk in Valdemar who even knew that the Hawkbrothers existed. So where else would the girl have heard an "old story" about the Tayledras except from Shion?
Elspeth's jaw tightened. The trouble was, no matter what she said or did, it was likely to make the situation worse. If she dressed Shion down for this, Shion would only be more certain that Elspeth was hiding some kind of dreadful secret. If she forbade any more loose talk, that would only make Shion more circumspect in spreading silly gossip. If she ignored it all, Shion would go right on spreading gossip, and making up whatever she didn't know for certain. There was no way Elspeth could win at this.
Heralds were human beings, with all the failings and foibles of any other set of humans. Shion's failing was gossip - harmless enough under most circumstances. Except for this one, where her fantasies could and would cause Elspeth some problems....
A gentle tap at the door made her look up in time to see Darkwind slipping inside. He glanced around the darkened room for a moment, then spotted her at the hearth and came to join her.
"I do not know whether to laugh or snarl, bright feather," he said without preamble. "And if we had not as many notorious gossips in k'Sheyna as anywhere else, I would probably be very annoyed at this moment."
"I take it you met Kalinda," Elspeth said dryly as he took a seat beside the fire.
"Indeed." His mouth twitched. "I was discussing some trifle with Firesong when she brought us our dinners, then, bold as you please, offered to - ah - 'join our mating circle.' I confess that I did not know what to say or do."
Elspeth took one look at his face and broke up in a fit of giggling. That set him off, too, and for the next few moments, they leaned against each other, laughing and gasping for breath. Any glance at the other's face only served to set them off again.
"I - dear gods! - you must have done something. How did you get her out of there?" she choked, finally.
He shook his head, and held his side. "I did nothing!" he confessed. "It was Firesong. He just looked at the girl and said, 'the offer is appreciated, but unless you turn male, impossible.' She turned quite scarlet, and stammered something neither of us understood, then left."
That sent Elspeth into convulsions again because she could very easily see Firesong doing exactly that. The wicked creature!
Her gales of laughter started Darkwind giggling again, and the two of them laughed until they simply had no more breath to laugh with anymore. She lay with her head against Darkwind's shoulder while the fire burned a little lower, and only spoke when he moved to throw another branch into the flames.
"I suppose that will take care of Shion for a while," she said, wiping moisture from the corner of one eye. "I wish I'd thought of that as a solution. But you know, now Shion will probably begin telling everyone that you and Firesong are both shay'a'chern. The gods only know what that will bring out of the comers!"
"I do not care, dearheart," he replied, stroking her hair. "So long as it saves you grief. And I am certain that Firesong will be positively delighted! I tell you, he is as shameless as a cooperihawk!"
She laughed again, for she had seen the cooperihawks in their rounds of spring matings, which were frequent and undiscriminating.
He chuckled with her and caressed her shoulders, then continued. "I have other confessions to make to you, and none so amusing. I had no idea of the size of your land, of the numbers of your people. I had naively supposed your Valdemar must be like a very large Vale. And I had no idea what your status truly was among your people. And - I now realize that all of my assumptions were based on those ideas."
"My status is subject to change, my love," she replied quickly. "As I told you, I am not indispensable."
"But others believe you are." He held her for a long moment in silence, his warm hands clasped across her waist. "You have duties and obligations, and they do not include a - long term relationship with some foreign mage."
She forced herself to remain calm; after all, wasn't this precisely what she had thought, herself, any number of times? She had known since before she left Valdemar that her freedom was severely restricted. Hadn't she rebuffed Skif with that very same argument?
But she no longer accepted that argument, as she had not accepted the "fated" path that the Companions had tried to force her to take.
And even though his tongue was saying that he must let her go, his body was saying quite a different thing. He held her tightly, fiercely, as if to challenge anyone who might try to part them.
She must choose her words very carefully. He had opened his heart to her; she must answer the pain she heard under his words. But he would not respect someone who violated all the vows she had made to her own land and people by willfully deserting them, either. The next few words might be the most important she would ever speak in her life.
"I have duties, true enough," she replied, slowly, turning to stare into his eyes. "I never pretended otherwise. I have to find a way to reconcile those duties with what I want and what you want. I think I can, if you will trust me."
"You know I do. With my very life, ashke."
His face looked like a beautiful sculpture by the firelight. Time seemed to slow down. Even Vree was stock-still, watching them both unblinkingly. Darkwind held his breath.
"I think I can be true to Valdemar, Darkwind - and to you. I know there has to be a way. I refuse to lose either of you - you or my native land and my duty to it. I refuse to let you go."
The last was said so fiercely that his eyes widened for a moment in surprise. "But how can you possibly reconcile them?" he asked at last. "You are your mother's chosen successor. There is very little freedom for you in that role."
"I have some ideas," she replied. "But they hinge on your not knowing what I'm going to do so you can be just as surprised as everyone else. Otherwise people will think that I'm simply acting like a love-struck wench rather than in the best interests of Valdemar."
He held very still for a moment. "And are you a love-struck wench?"
She reached up, grabbed two handfuls of his hair, and pulled his mouth to hers for a long and passionate kiss.
The touch of his lips made a fire build in the core of her. It made it very difficult to hold to coherent thought. "Of course I am," she replied calmly.
Darkwind smiled and stroked her hair. He closed his eyes and pulled her closer, strong and comforting, protecting her as a great hawk would mantle over its young in a storm. His touch against her cheek was as gentle as a feather's, and his sigh of contentment matched her own.
The scent of his body and the smoky warmth of the room blended. She knew she had said the right thing. She had spoken her heart. She had spoken the truth.
The kiss had made her heart race and drove her thoughts into paths entirely foreign to simple discussion. "But I don't want them to know that. Being love-struck doesn't mean my brains have poured out my ears!"
"I hope not," he murmured, "because I am as much in love with your mind as - "
She did not give him the chance to finish the sentence.
Vree watched the two kiss, then tucked his head to sleep. As far as Vree was concerned, whatever came, whatever they faced, wherever they went, all would now be right with the world.
It was a good bonding. Display done. Mate won. Nesting soon. They would fly high together.
At last, they cleared the area covered by the storm, and the final few days were spent riding under sunnier skies. Sunnier - not sunny; there were no cloudless skies, but at least the roads remained less than mud-pits despite the occasional brief cloudburst. The weather was still odd, though; there were always spectacular sunsets and wild lightning storms at night, although these storms did not necessarily produce rain, and the skies never entirely cleared even when they neared Haven.
The city itself sat under a circle of blue sky, rather than clouds; a nearly-perfect circle, in fact, and very odd to Elspeth's eyes. When Firesong saw that, he nodded to himself, as if this was something he had anticipated but had not necessarily expected.
At least, when they reached Haven, they were no longer mud spattered and soggy; they even took a moment to change, when they were within a candlemark or two of the capital. Elspeth had the feeling they were not going to have much of a chance to clean up when they reached the Palace, given the excitement her arrival was generating.
A scant network of signal-towers like the ones in Hardorn had been set up to relay news, although in the foul weather they had been riding through such towers could only be used at night, and often not even then. There were not enough of them to warn their noble hosts that they were coming, but there were enough that by now all of Haven knew the approximate candlemark of when they would appear. Once the weather cleared, they had borrowed a cart from one of their hosts, in which the gryphlets and Rris now rode in excited splendor. In every village along the road, even when it was raining, the entire population turned out to see them pass.
Elspeth felt entirely as if she was riding in a circus procession, but she waved and smiled anyway, noting with a great deal of amusement that no one really paid much attention to her once they caught sight of the gryphons.
By the time they reached Haven, word had traveled ahead of them by those mirror- and lantern-relays, and as she had expected, the road on both sides was lined with people, four and five deep. It was quite obvious at that point that Elspeth was not the attraction; she was not even a close second. After all, she did not look all that much different than any Herald, and the populace around Haven was quite used to seeing Heralds. The gryphons, gryphlets, and Tayledras were the real attention getters, in that order.
Firesong and Treyvan were in their element, waving genially to the crowd, and occasionally throwing up magical "fireworks" that were insignificant in terms of power, but incredibly showy. They were definitely crowd pleasers. Treyvan would take to the air every few leagues to hover above the procession, while the onlookers ooh-ed and ahh-ed. Hydona simply sighed with patience, and trotted quietly behind the wagon. The gryphlets bounced in the bed of the wagon like a pair of excited kittens, bringing more "ohs" and exclamations of "aren't they adorable." As had happened at the Ashkevron manor, the gryphlets convinced the crowd that these mighty creatures were not monsters at all.
Elspeth might just as well not have been along. People cheered her in a perfunctory sort of way, then riveted their attention on the Hawkbrothers and gryphons. When either Treyvan or Firesong performed, she could have stripped naked and done riding tricks on Gwena's back and no one would have noticed.
She had known this would happen. She had rather expected that she might find herself a little jealous. After all, she was used to being the center of attention - the beloved Heir to the Throne, and all of that. She had never been forced to share the focus of all eyes, much less been excluded from that focus.
She was rather surprised when all she felt was relief. And in a way, that simply confirmed what she had been thinking since they had arrived back in Valdemar. She was not really happy being the Heir; she was not truly suited to the job. She had been a lot more comfortable back in the Vale, when no one had treated her any differently than anyone else in the Clan. In fact, with the Hawkbrothers, she was judged only by her merits. She had changed a great deal since she had last seen Haven, and nothing showed that change quite so profoundly as this.
When they reached the outskirts of Haven, the crowd had thickened, to the point where there wasn't room for a child between the fronts of the buildings and the street. The noise was deafening; the mass of folk dressed in their best dazzling to the eye. And for someone who had spent so many months out in the wilderness, the crowds were enough to give one a feeling of being crushed.
She spared a thought and a glance for Nyara, who had probably never seen this many people in all of her life put together. The Changechild was clinging to Skif's hand, but seemed to be holding up fairly well.
:She's all right,: Need said shortly, in answer to Elspeth's tentative thought :I managed to get her used to something like this by feeding her some of my old memories. She doesn't like it much, but then, neither do you.:A good point. Elspeth tendered her thanks, and turned her attention back toward the crowd, watching for ambushes and traps. This would be a good place to hide an assassin, if Ancar had the time to put one in place. People leaned precariously out of windows to watch them pass, cheering wildly, and still paying very little attention to her. It felt like a kind of victory procession. She only hoped the feeling would prove prophetic.
In a way, it was kind of amusing, for the merchants and street vendors had taken advantage of the situation and the advance warning they had of it, to do as much impulse business as they might during a real festival. She noted, chuckling under the roar of the crowd, the number of vendors with merchandise they must have made up specifically for this "processional." There were people hawking gryphon and Companion-shaped pastries and candies, cheap flags emblazoned with crude gryphons, hawks, and the arms of Valdemar, toy sellers with carved hawks, Companions, and fat little winged cats with beaks that were undoubtably supposed to be gryphons, and one enterprising fellow with stick-horses with white Companion heads and feathered gryphon heads. He was doing an especially brisk business.
She was relieved and pleased to see a number of people in Guard blue mingled in with the crowd. Kero's work, no doubt. In fact, she might very well have called in all of the Skybolts to be on assassin-watch. Trust Kero to think of that.
:I'm watching, too, youngling,: Need said unexpectedly :Keep your eyes sharp, but with all of us working, I think we'll get any assassin before he gets one of us.:
The crowd continued to be that thick right up to the gates of the Palace/Collegium complex. They passed between the walls and onto the road leading up to the Palace, and there the motley crowd gave way to a crowd of people in discrete knots of Guard Blue, trainee Gray, Healer Green, Bard Red, and Herald White. And it appeared that at least a few of the vendors had penetrated even here - or some enterprising young student had turned vendor himself - for here were the flags they had seen out in the city, being waved just as enthusiastically by usually sober Heralds and Guards. There were, perhaps, a few less gryphons and hawks and a few more of the white horses of Valdemar, but otherwise it looked very much the same. The trainees in particular were loud and enthusiastic, their young voices rising shrilly above those of their elders. It was all but impossible to see much of anything past the crowd. Even the Companions were crowded up behind the humans, tossing their manes, their eyes sparkling with enjoyment.
She caught sight of friends at last among the crowd - some of her year-mates, Keren and Teren, retired Elcarth. The noise was such that she saw their mouths moving, and could only shrug and grin, miming that she would talk to them later.